With a fast-paced mix of interviews, old movie clips, and images of the Berlin Wall symbolizing academia's rigid defense of Darwinism, the film is generating polar-opposite reactions from viewers: either denounced as garbage and propaganda, or hailed as "enormously important."
"What you're seeing is that there's nothing down the middle," said Mark Mathis, one of the movie's producers. "I think the reaction is absolutely consistent with what we see in this debate."
The Rev. Steve Hutmacher, executive pastor of CedarCreek Church in Perrysburg Township, said the church rented a theater for a screening of Expelled on April 17, the night before it opened on 1,052 screens nationwide.
"It sounded like a movie that would obviously be raising a lot of questions and generating a lot of discussion," Mr. Hutmacher said. "The people who saw it said they were really shocked and angry that in a free America, if you speak up against Darwinism, you could lose your job or be demoted."
Sean Carroll, a Toledo native who teaches molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin, said the movie's references to intelligent design are a "smokescreen" to promote religious views. Intelligent design is a theory that certain features of the universe are best explained by an intelligent cause, not random mutations or natural selection as proposed by evolution.
"It's such a cartoon picture. It's such a distortion of reality," Mr. Carroll said of the questions raised about evolution. "You cannot consider yourself a literate person today and doubt the age of the Earth, the fact that life has changed, the fact that we are descended from primate ancestors. These are well-established facts from independent lines of evidence."
Mr. Carroll, a graduate of Toledo's St. Francis de Sales High School who earned a doctorate from Tufts University, said the issue "does rile passion, but 99.99 percent of all scientists would tell you that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming."
Mr. Mathis said the movie's producers are well aware of the polarizing power of Expelled.
"For some people, this film violates every cell in their bodies and they're over the top in their criticism," he said. "Then you see glowing reviews from people on the conservative side who say this is one of the most important documentaries of all time."
The movie, which earned $3 million on its opening weekend, takes a Michael Moore-style look at cases in which the powers that rule the world's scientific community - and its billions of research dollars - allegedly have quashed debate on evolution or squashed scholars who spoke up for intelligent design.
Mr. Stein, a droll comedian and Yale Law School valedictorian, is filmed walking through city streets and office hallways wearing a suit and sneakers to track down scientists and scholars, several of whom assert that their careers were derailed for failing to follow the party line on evolution.
Among those who claimed to be victims of the academic gestapo:
•Richard Sternberg, a double-PhD biologist fired by the Smithsonian Institution after publishing a paper describing evidence for intelligent design;
•Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrobiologist denied tenure at Iowa State University for saying he believes the universe is too complex to have been created by chance;
•Caroline Crocker, a biology teacher whose contract was not renewed at George Mason University after she mentioned the theory of intelligent design.
Jerry Bergman, an instructor of biology, chemistry, and genetics at Northwest State Community College in Archbold, Ohio, said he is convinced these kinds of punishments are widespread.
He has spent 30 years compiling information for a book that is soon to be published, Slaughter of the Dissidents, in which he documents the cases of 100 professors and teachers whose careers were capsized for doubting Darwin.
"These kinds of things are very, very common," said Mr. Bergman, whose nine academic degrees include a doctorate in evaluation from Wayne State University. "I have documented case after case. It's so blatant, you can't deny it's going on."
He said he interviewed another 100 academics who had serious doubts about Darwinism but were afraid to speak up.
"There are a number of people who support intelligent design and are firmly in the closet," he said.
Opponents to intelligent design often don't debate the facts but resort to emotional attacks, he said.
"There's a tendency to demean people who question Darwinism. There's a lot of name-calling and innuendo. I get nasty notes under my door," he said.
Mr. Mathis said his on-site research for Expelled makes him fear for the careers of any professor who raises doubts about evolution.
"The atmosphere on campus is so toxic, the level of intimidation is palpable. Thou shalt not question Darwinism," he said. "My personal anecdotal evidence leads me to believe that there are tens of thousands of scientists who fall in that category who remain silent for fear of having their careers skewered."
He said Expelled's $3 million opening weekend was about double the figure most film-industry experts had predicted. And the response from audiences has been overwhelmingly positive, he said, with a number of audiences giving it standing ovations when the credits rolled.
"We did exit polls and 97 percent of the people say they liked it," Mr. Mathis said. "That's a staggeringly large number. And 96 percent said that they would recommend it to a friend."
After a matinee showing last week at the Cinema De Lux Franklin Park, Jill and Cliff Millemen of Toledo said Expelled passed the credibility test with flying colors.
"I thought it was excellent," Mrs. Milleman, 23, said. "It brings to light how intelligent design is suppressed in the school systems. You're laughed at for even talking about it."
Mr. Millemen, 21, said the documentary "was very objective. It's not saying teaching evolution is wrong, it's just saying there should be freedom to discuss it in academic circles."
Mr. Stein, a former Nixon speechwriter who is well-known for hosting the TV game show Win Ben Stein's Money and starring in Ferris Buehler's Day Off, spent time interviewing a number of powerful and influential people who disagreed with the movie's premise.
Among them were Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education, and Richard Dawkins, author of the best-selling book The God Delusion.
Several of those interviewed said on-camera that proponents of intelligent design or Creationism are "morons" or "idiots."
One of the movie's Michael Moore-type "gotcha" moments involved Mr. Dawkins, perhaps the world's most prominent atheist, saying intelligent design has merit.
"It could be that at some earlier time somewhere in the universe a civilization evolved by, probably, some kind of Darwinian means to a very, very high level of technology and designed a form of life that they seeded onto, perhaps, this planet," Mr. Dawkins tells Mr. Stein. "Now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility."
Mr. Mathis said Mr. Dawkins' observation was amusing. "If it's a space alien, it's 'an intriguing possibility.' If it's God, you're delusional," he said. "That pretty much sums up the debate."
Contact David Yonke at:
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Actor-attorney Ben Stein is turning up the heat on one of society's hot-button issues with Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary film that claims scholars are being fired, demoted, ostracized, ridiculed, or otherwise punished merely for questioning evolution.