You don't have to know much about the Church of Scientology to know that it's received a lot of bad publicity in the last few years. Lawrence Wright's illuminating Going Clear inspired Alex Gibney's equally rewarding documentary of the same name, while ex-member Leah Remini wrote a memoir and scored ratings success for her A & E docu-series.
And so readers and viewers have likely already learned about the hucksterish history of its creator, science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard; its endless demands for money from followers; and the "questionable teachings" their money buys, along with the controversial behavior of its current leader, the volatile (a polite way of saying that he allegedly likes to hit people) David Miscavige. Journalists who cover the highly secretive organization have learned to expect lengthy messages from its attorneys, surveillance from (and occasional confrontations with) its members and, eventually, denunciation. (Curiously, the Church usually refuses offers to go on the record with its side of the story.) The truth, as they say, is out there, so what else is there to tell?
Like many others who have tried to report on Scientology, the British documentarian Louis Theroux was rebuffed when he tried to interview Church officials, so he decided to take a different approach with My Scientology Movie. (To clarify things, it's not entirely his Scientology movie: Theroux makes the journalistic decisions, while co-writer and director John Dower handles the technical aspects.) Aided by some of its more public apostates, he hires actors to re-enact some of Miscavige's greatest hits: his only televised interview on a 1992 episode of Nightline and a meeting of Church officials in "the Hole," with the raging Miscavige trashing furniture and terrorizing the staff. Though the re-enactments (clearly represented as such) are only part of the film, they are a crucial part of Theroux's efforts to show the Church not just as a powerful and secretive organization, but as a significant force in the lives of many, even those who have left it.
Central to Theroux's investigation is Mark "Marty" Rathbun, who was Scientology's second most powerful official before leaving the Church in 2004. Rathbun is a prickly, bear-like man — he could pass for Bill Murray's kid brother — and practically functions as co-director of the re-enacted scenes, though he quickly turns irritable and defensive when asked about his own past deeds on behalf of the Church. In his defense, the film also shows how he's under near-constant harassment from camera-toting Church members known as "squirrel busters." (Rathbun has officially disassociated himself from the film, accusing Theroux and Co. of deliberately provoking the Church and of being insensitive to the admittedly complicated feelings of those who have left it.)
Theroux is a follower of the tradition of Michael Moore, Nick Broomfield and Jon Ronson (fans of Moore's 1994 TV Nation series will recognize Theroux as one of its contributors). He presents himself as a kind of journalistic everyman, nervously feeling his way through a story that may be more than he can handle.
But while Theroux places himself in the center of the film, he's wise enough to realize that he's not part of the story — not an easy task once the squirrel-busters start showing up in his path. Those who have read or seen Going Clear may recognize much of the material about Miscavige and the scenes taking place behind barbed-wire fences in the Church's Gold Base, but Theroux humanizes it, stepping right up to the gate to give it a present-day immediacy.
There's a strange confrontation — one of many — in which a Church representative (silent videographer at her side) tries to chase Theroux and his colleagues away from the base. He's encountered the woman before and knows that she is the estranged wife of one of his ex-member subjects. But more importantly, he's started to pick up on the vocal traits and power games that the Church uses on members, and so he answers her in kind. It's a bizarre, futile shouting match in which neither side really gains anything, but for a brief moment, it allows My Scientology Movie to get unsettlingly close to the mind of one of its members. Like much of the film, it's an odd moment, almost comic and ultimately disturbing.