Director: John Dower
15 | 1h 39min | Documentary | 7 October 2016 (UK)
In 2003, deadpan documentarian maestro Louis Theroux made a film about his attempts to interview Michael Jackson, having lost out to Martin Bashir for an opportunity to produce an official documentary on the king of pop. There is a similar sense of Theroux having lost out again here in his new investigation My Scientology Movie, as this film arrives in the wake of Alex Gibney’s acclaimed, although far more forensic Going Clear. Whether Theroux knew about Gibney’s film during his shoot and felt the rug had been pulled out from under him isn't clear, but his film is hobbled somewhat by the sense that there is little more we can learn about the religion-come-business empire that is the Church of Scientology. Theroux’s documentary even draws from the same source footage as Gibney’s film at times, even as it tries a different tack at getting into the mindset of a scientologist, with only partial insights gained, but plenty of laughs along the way.
Long fascinated by the Church of Scientology (if you are familiar with Theroux’s work you’ll understand why it is an obvious target for him) Louis Theroux and his director John Dower spent over a year in LA researching. The Church has long been under the leadership of its own seemingly self-appointed and unaccountable pope, one David Miscavige, who is really the focus of Theroux’s curiosity. Theroux’s requests to enter the Church’s headquarters to interview Miscavige, or anyone else in authority there had been turned down repeatedly; and so this documentary doesn’t even attempt to pry the door open. Theroux instead decided for this film to team up with some ex-members of the organisation, including former Scientology Inspector General Marty Rathbun (kind of like the Church’s version of Malcolm Tucker) and a group of young Hollywood wannabe actors in order to re-enact some incidents and behaviour people recorded experiencing (or in the case of Rathbun, inflicting) as Church members to better understand the way it operates.
It is an intriguing approach, reminiscent somewhat of that taken by Joshua Oppenheimer in his The Act of Killing. Given how much Scientology covets its Hollywood celebrity members, most notably Tom Cruise and John Travolta, it seems strangely appropriate that Theroux mine the same ground for recruits. The way some actors who were former Church members describe what they saw in the organisation’s promise, it does seem to have been particularly designed to appeal to those wanting to be financially successful, to be stars, to feel like they earned it all whilst never having to take the attention away from their own selves. Success and happiness is promised through focusing on the inner life, via a clear, step-based program. Throw in the fact that elevation through the ranks requires increasing amounts of cash, and you have the sense of a very American religion that has no problem aligning monetary success and selfishness with religious observance.
It is a shame then that Theroux keeps letting the focus of his film drift around so much, cutting away from the genuinely intriguing rehearsals and filmed re-enactments to either show us archive footage that we have already seen in Gibney’s film, or to Theroux’s consistently stonewalled attempts to get close to the Scientologist’s Gold Base compound in Southern California so as to apparently film some reenactment footage in the spirit of things (which frankly sounds a bit disingenuous). Theroux’s confrontations with the Church’s ever-ready security forces do at least provide some high farce, as one commissar-esque guard named Catherine Fraser and her team spend forever arguing with Theroux about whether or not the Church owns the road he is filming on. As this barney happens, the Church security men constantly film Theroux and his cameraman, leading to a bizarre showdown with three or four sets of lenses (once smartphones come into it). Marty Rathbun sighs that he has seen this all before. It is the Scientology mindset; defend by attack. And so it seems the Church is making a film about a man making a film about them.
Theroux has other run-ins with the Church, including tussling with what appear to be one of their camera teams outside the studio where he is filming with the actors, and a white SUV with tinted windows spends hours following his car. Bizarre and intimidating though this behaviour seems, it appears to be as nothing compared to what Marty Rathbun describes having had to endure, having been public enemy number one on the Scientology shit list for years now. Rathbun actually ends the film swearing to escalate his assault on Miscavige’s empire, after a group of Scientologists bring his son into the conversation. Rathbun is a fascinating, unnerving, and obviously compromised individual, but he does not respond well to Theroux’s prodding (a common reaction many interview subjects have to Theroux’s niggling, unyielding approach) and so we never learn more than what Gibney prised out of him earlier.
One participant who does deserve special mention though is the actor Theroux and Rathbun single out to play Miscavige in their re-enactments. Claiming he has always found it easy to channel his anger, young thespian Andrew Perez really nails the zealotry in Miscavige’s delivery and gaze, and has no problem slamming underlings up against the wall in the memorable reconstructions of how Miscavige is alleged to have behaved behind closed doors. If only the film had featured more of him, but then when the biopic of Miscavige is inevitably filmed, he might well get the call.