Probably because it’s completely barking mad, we seem to be endlessly fascinated by Scientology. The religion/cult, discovered/made up by sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard, has been the subject of endless speculation in its half-century history, partly thanks to its secretive nature. But despite it counting a number of major movie stars among its ranks (or more likely, because of that fact), cinematic investigations of Hubbard’s creation had mostly been limited to John Travolta’s propaganda movie flop “Battlefield Earth.”
But things have changed of late. Paul Thomas Anderson’s thinly-veiled story of the founding of the religion, “The Master,” was followed within a couple of years by Alex Gibney’s scintillating exposé documentary, “Going Clear,” which was released earlier this year. Now, we get another non-fiction examination of the phenomenon, with John Dower’s “My Scientology Movie,” fronted by the well-known British journalist/presenter Louis Theroux and produced by Simon Chinn, who was behind “Man On Wire” and “Searching For Sugar Man.”
Theroux first came to prominence on Michael Moore’s “TV Nation,” before spending most of the last couple of decades using his distinctive, humor-driven style — faux-naif, playing up his Britishness, giving out just enough rope — to document and skewer everything from porn stars and survivalists to sex offenders to plastic surgery, in an irreverent but sensitive manner.
It’s clear from his introduction that Scientology has become something of a white whale for Theroux, so it’s fitting that it’s the subject of his first big screen outing. However, Theroux confesses almost immediately that he’s at a disadvantage because the Church, as is their common practice, won’t give him any access. So he comes up with an inventive approach: with the help of Marty Rathbun, a former highly-placed Scientologist who left the religion and became one of its most outspoken critics, he’s using actors to recreate transcripts and incidents based on testimony from former Scientologists to fill the gaps where interviews don’t exist.
The film nominally follows the casting and production process, as Theroux digs into the religion’s leader, the reclusive David Miscavige, and into Rathbun himself, a complicated figure who can bristle when the camera examines him as well as his former religion. And things are complicated further when cameras start following Theroux and Rathbun themselves around, cameras which their owners eventually admit are being used for a Scientology-backed documentary about Theroux himself.
It’s a lot to cover, especially across a brisk running time of 90 minutes or so, and the film can feel a bit messy as a result. Inevitably, the spectre of “Going Clear” looms large over this new film. Alex Gibney’s doc is as comprehensive a look at Scientology as you could ask for, and though Dower’s film is its rougher, more rambunctious cousin, it does suffer a little when it finds itself going over the same ground. This stands out particularly near the end when the film addresses The Hole, and the abuses that Miscavige allegedly perpetrated there, material very familiar to any “Going Clear” viewers.
The more unique conceit, the meta, Herzogian elements of shooting the reconstructions, has mixed results too. There’s something hugely enjoyable about watching Theroux and Rathbun casting actors to play Miscavige and Tom Cruise (there’s a rather chilling scene where Rathbun gets potential Miscaviges to grab him by the throat and scream at him), and the idea of using the Church’s own tactics against them is a strong one, even if it rather belies the frontman’s early protestations that he wanted to set out to make an even-handed film. But the artificiality seems more of a response to constraints — namely, that Scientology obstructed Theroux at every term — than an attempt to dig into the nature of truth and fiction, and it sometimes feels as though the filmmakers are positioning these sequences as more of a smoking gun than they actually prove to be.
More interesting is the way that the film does what Gibney didn’t, and really engages with its sources, namely with Rathbun. The film’s as much a character study of him (“an embittered apostate,” as Theroux suggests to him at one point, echoing Scientology’s spin against him) as it is an examination of the religion as a whole, and he’s a complex and sometimes contradictory man. That we don’t quite get a sense of why he allowed himself to buy into his beliefs for so long, or into his current spiritual practices, is less the film’s fault than a by-product of Rathbun’s rage when Theroux delves into his darker side — as with the religion he used to run interference for, he closes down when the tough questions are asked.
It’s when members of Scientology break their own rules and do get involved that the film really soars. Theroux’s attempts at approaching the church’s buildings are invariably met with wild overreactions, normally from senior member Catherine Fraser, and the filmmakers find absurd, almost Kafka-esque humor in the scenes where (alleged) Scientologists intimidate Rathbun and his team with their own cameras, usually with deep ineptness. It’s these scenes that are probably the most damning, and prove that however rigorous Gibney might have been, Theroux’s understated approach using mockery and British stubbornness might prove far more damaging.
The main character makes an engaging guide as well as a humorous one, and putting the process in the foreground helps to make it a film that’s highly entertaining even in its more familiar, or least fruitful, sections. But when you reach the end without much resolution, it also becomes clear that the film’s relative lack of rigor, as amiable as it might be, will nag long before its more humorous elements have faded. [B-]