There is no denying that Scientology’s mysterious influence on Hollywood is one of the more fascinating aspects of an already interesting subject. The “religion” was created by a sci-fi writer, who used the power of cinema to recruit new members (and apparently targeted actors because of their ability to influence). Yet, it’s managed with military strictness and corporate formality. And as we learn more and more about it through books and documentaries like Going Clear and Leah Remini’s new mini-series, the details we’ve learned only create more questions.
So another Scientology movie may seem repetitive at first, but isn’t because of the new approach it takes to the subject matter. My Scientology Movie is at its essence comedic. Louie Theroux, who’s previous documentaries were fly on the wall experiences in strange worlds (including porn actors, survivalists, and the Westboro Baptist Church) wanted to do the same with Scientology, to understand from the inside out what Scientology is. But after being turned down again and again, even discouraged with legal action, he took a different approach…he went Hollywood. The British filmmaker went to Los Angeles to recreate aspects of Scientology, guided by former inspector general Marty Rathbun.
Rathbun is a curious subject and there is something cunning in how the filmmakers utilize him in the film. He insists so strongly on his authority and one time power within the church, Theroux seems to be doing a kind of exposure therapy to force out anything he’s repressed, memories of some of his own misdeeds as an official within Scientology. Rathbun spends so much time boasting of his own importance, how respected he was within the Church, and fear he instilled, Theroux has no choice but to question if he deserves similar blame for what the Church has become under the power of David Miscavige (who took power after L. Rob Hubbard’s death). While of course far less severe, there are similarities in these recreations to what Joshua Oppenheimer did in The Act of Killing (one of the best documentaries ever made). My Scientology Movie isn’t in the same league of that film, but on its small scale it is one of the most entertaining and fun documentary watches in years.
Part of that is simply the format and tone. Theroux and director John Dower throw traditional documentary styles away to create a hodgepodge informed by narrative cinematic styles. They embrace the “Hollywoodness” of the whole thing, not only recreating exercises, but moments in the life of leader David Miscavige, acted out by a man cast at an audition we witness. We also see an audition for an actor to play Tom Cruise…a bizarre element of the film Theroux includes to stress the responsibility Cruise claims as the biggest champion of Miscavige (and potentially remind Rathbun of similar responsibility he shared) and as the second highest ranked member and best known spokesperson. The scenes “recreated” are a televised speech Miscavige gave. And then there is the more menacing sequence, a “recreation” written by Rathbun dramatizing an abusive time when higher up members of the Church were held in offices for extended periods. We have no way of knowing how accurate Rathbun’s presentation is…although there are several who back him up.
My Scientology Movie ultimately benefits from having several additional people around to both confirm Rathbun’s claims against the church and throw his version of himself in question. Two of the men speak of abuses he perpetrated, one personally against him. It turns Rathbun into Theroux’s unreliable narrator, something relatively rare to see in a documentary. And then there are the Scientology members themselves who are on the defensive against the documentary, most displaying bizarre behavior. On several occasions Theroux gets into a stand-off with members filming him (so he starts filming them) and they are some of the funniest scenes of discomfort you’ll see. Theroux’s British politeness only adds to the comedy as his calmness seems to aggravate them all the more.
As a host, Theroux keeps the movie on track and provides the POV and personality to hold intent throughout. He’s an easy person to be in the company of and his sincere interest in trying to understand Scientology (despite the door being shut in his face) give the film its lasting impact; that Scientology’s current status in popular culture as a possible cult may be the due to the all too powerful David Miscavige. And the hostages suffering from Stockholm Syndrome in this scenario may be his own faithful members.