My Scientology Movie: Documentary that isn’t as novel as it appears


Documentarian Louis Theroux’s new film explores the controversial Church of Scientology, employing young actors to play prominent Scientologists and reenact exercises that give a glimpse inside the Church.

The snappy charisma of British documentarian Louis Theroux is best captured in a scene midway through his new film, when he is confronted by irate Scientology officials outside the organization’s Gold Base HQ in Riverside County, Calif., and calls attention to a posturing thug near the side of the road. “There’s a bloke there,” Theroux notes. “But he seems enturbulated.”

That word, enturbulated, was coined by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, to describe an agitated or disturbed state of mind. And Theroux deploys it to hilarious effect, mocking members of the church in their own insider jargon. It’s that seeming cool despite the high-stress circumstances, that gawky grace under pressure, that has endeared Theroux to fans for the better part of two decades.

To audiences on this side of the pond, Theroux is probably best known for his documentaries about the hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church: 2007’s The Most Hated Family In America, and 2011’s America’s Most Hated Family In Crisis. Although never officially released in the United States and Canada, they were made widely available online, and drew praise for their intimate look into the workings of the abhorrent religious cult that dressed up enmity as belief.

But Theroux’s career goes much further back: to his late-1990s BBC2 series Weird Weekends (which would see him spending a few days among communities of born-again Christians, porn stars, hypnotists or survivalists), and his more serious BBC docs about gambling addiction, big-game hunters, “ultra-Zionists” and neo-Nazis.

Given his extensive experience immersing himself among weirdos, oddballs and extremists, the controversial Church of Scientology would seem the perfect subject for Theroux’s big, breakout documentary. The problem is not even someone as charming and disarming as Theroux is going to get a sit-down interview with church chairman David Miscavige, a man whose viciousness and cruelty have been widely reported in the media, and roundly denied by the church.

Knowing this, Theroux and his crew take a different tack. They recruit young actors to play Miscavige and other prominent Scientologists (including Tom Cruise), retaining a reformed senior executive of the church named Marty Rathbun to lead them through mock exercises, allowing a glimpse inside the church without actually getting inside the church. It proves a productive exercise – especially in the way Theroux draws connections between hopeful young Hollywood upstarts auditioning for his film and the spiritually thirsty drawn to the Church – but one wonders if it’s really as novel as it appears to be.

The idea of using re-enactments in docs to spur real-life realizations has become common to the point of seeming a bit old hat (The Act of Killing, The Arbor, on back to Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly). Likewise, in the wake of Alex Gibney’s more straight-ahead Scientology doc, Going Clear (and countless books, films and journalistic exposés), the church itself seems like a bit of a broad target. By now, we get it. Scientology is bad. It is controlling and manipulative and ruins peoples’ lives. It should probably be outlawed. But now what?

What enlivens My Scientology is Theroux himself: watching him stumble from one idea to the next, interact with intense actors pulling their best Tom Cruise grins, butt heads with Rathbun, bicker with church insiders and throw their own idiotic lingo back in their faces. What the film lacks in the way of harrowing, jaw-dropping revelations, it makes up for with Theroux’s charm and breezy charisma. Sadly, it seems like it’ll take more than a cool breeze or a well-turned bon mot to take down the Church of Scientology.

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