Scott Thurman’s engrossing and troubling documentary, The Revisionaries, should be as boring as watching paint dry. By the end of the film, we wish it were that dull. Set largely in the voting chambers of the Texas State Board of Education, the film follows a few of the board members, and a few lobbyists, including one Southern Methodist University professor, through the process of approving state standards for textbooks. The subject should be cut-and-dry, but Thurman exposes the scene as a frontline in the culture wars, as figures on the left and the right line up to jockey for revisions to the standards that may advance ideological goals.
We begin with Don McLeroy, a dentist and Ned Flanders-like character, who is being interrogated by the Texas Legislature for tampering with the textbook approval process to advance his own agenda. McLeroy is a creationist; he sings religious songs to his patients as they’re stuck under his drill in the dentist chair; he teachers a Sunday school class, and we watch him take his kids out to a field with orange cones to measure out the size of the real ark, proving, according to McLeroy, that all the animals in the world could in fact fit in Noah’s giant boat. McLeroy is eventually removed from the chair, but the documentary flashes back and we follow his career and influence both as chair and, after his removal, as a reelected board member.
It would have been easy to get bogged down in the details of the debate over history or evolution, but Thurman keeps his film focused on the protagonists. McLeroy emerges as simple, contradictory, and surprisingly sympathetic (if pitiful) character, caught up to some extent in his own awareness of his out-of-proportion power. Southern Methodist University professor Rob Wetherington, who tries (and fails) to reason with the board on the basis of scientific standards, enlivens the film through the pure power of his facial expressions. In this face-off, Thurman strives to stay objective and at arms-length, but the lingering feeling, no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, is that this is entirely the wrong forum for making impactful decisions on matters of education, history, and science.