Documentary filmmaker and broadcaster Louis Theroux has a reputation for tackling the trickiest and most controversial of customers in a hilariously deadpan and modest manner. So who better to go after the HQ of the Church of Scientology? Theroux’s new project, My Scientology Movie, is an appealing concept – and one that proves to be the filmmaker’s most uncomfortable confrontation yet.
When the Church of Scientology turns down Theroux’s request to talk, he decides to get its attention another way. Inspired by its glossy, movie-like promotional films, Theroux teams up with director John Dower to make his own movie in its heartland, Los Angeles. It’s about alleged events behind closed doors that involved ex-elite members, known as the Sea Organization (Sea Org), at the hands of the Church’s leader, David Miscavige, Chairman of the Board of Religious Technology Center (RTC).
For these reconstructions, Theroux casts actors in the role of Miscavige and prominent member, Hollywood A-lister Tom Cruise, all under the consultation/watchful eye of ex-member Marty Rathbun, former Inspector General of the RTC. Hardly surprising, the Church begins to take an interest in their activities and starts to make a film about them.
Up against Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015), it was always going to be very interesting to see how Theroux would use Rathun in this. After all, we’ve already seen the ex-member being harassed on film by Church members – known as ‘squirreling’ – outside his home in Florida.
Theroux orchestrates Rathun as both subject and chief collaborator – on the movie project. The in-car interviewing provides some tense moments of viewing pleasure, purely because it’s a contained space between the pair and anything can happen. However, what is fascinating is how Rathun reacts to the reconstructions he is playing a part in recreating for the movie – how quietly in awe he is of the performance given by the charismatic actor playing Miscavige. After all, Rathun is still practising the ‘faith’.
In terms of Rathun the subject, the highlight moment is after his child is cruelly brought into the equation by stalking ex-Church members. This actually leads to an unexpected confrontation between him and Theroux that is awkward as hell, but priceless to watch as the usually poker-faced broadcaster is actually unsure of what to say next.
The confrontations with Church members are naturally entertaining and expected, with Theroux’s unreadable face hiding that big kid screaming “but why?” to every denial. One gem is a camera standoff involving a female Church member telling Theroux to leave, as the public road is supposedly private property and closed to them. Aside from the odd hilarious thrill like this, it’s much the same technique of ‘catching them on camera catching Theroux et al on camera’, and therefore, bringing nothing new to the table.
My Scientology Movie is definitely for Theroux aficionados and a good introduction for novices to the man. Without the highlights of the reactions to the reconstructions, the rest of the film is fairly ‘so-so’, tabloid-style baiting – as the genre goes, even if it does raise a few laughs. In the end, out of all the projects he has done, Theroux may well have met his match in subject Rathun – the Church angle serves merely as a catalyst for this.