2016 – USA/ UK
Director: John Dower
Words: N. Scatcherd
For those who may be unaware: Scientology is one of the most bizarre and controversial movements in recent history – a ‘religion’ based primarily on the writings of science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, the followers of which buy their way up the hierarchy and promote teachings involving ancient alien races and psychic powers. It has a number of very high-profile followers, the most (in)famous being Tom Cruise, although it also counts celebrity figures such as John Travolta, Juliette Lewis and Beck among its patrons.
It’s a ripe subject for documentary film-making, and on paper, the famously laidback, disarming style of the BBC’s Louis Theroux should be perfect for it. He has a way of approaching people openly and politely, without any obvious guile, in a way which often relaxes his subjects to a point where their guard will slip a little, and they may say things or act in certain ways they wouldn’t around your ‘usual’ journalist. Of course, there is always an element of sly knowing with Theroux – not intended as a dig, I’m a fan of the man’s work – where you can tell his sheepish demeanour, complete with near-permanent ‘who, me?’ expression, belies a man who knows very well what he’s doing. However, My Scientology Movie feels sadly underdeveloped throughout, standing as less of a probe into a notoriously secretive, strange and occasionally outwardly hostile movement and more as a somewhat entertaining, but basically unilluminating exercise in surreality.
The bulk of the film focuses on Marty Rathbun, a former senior figure in Scientology who has since defected and is now treated as a bitter, untrustworthy, subversive enemy of the movement. He seems like a fairly laidback and softly-spoken person, but nevertheless, his own past involvement in Scientology’s more sinister machinations keeps him shrouded in a cloud of moral ambiguity. He helps Louis pick out an actor to portray Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, in a series of re-enactments portraying some public broadcasts Miscavige made defending himself and Scientology’s image, as well as the various instances of abuse he apparently perpetrated against followers. They also pick out an actor to portray Tom Cruise in a bizarre bit of ‘actors portraying actors’ post-modernism, but this curiously doesn’t really go anywhere.
The film’s main preoccupation remains on Rathbun and the actor – Andrew Perez – he and Theroux eventually pick to play Miscavige. The real Miscavige has by all accounts an explosively violent temper stemming from total self-righteousness, and to his credit Perez seems to tap into this with uncanny skill in the re-enactment exercises. It’s genuinely alarming to see how quickly he can snap from being an apparently fairly affable guy, to a monstrous bully who slams Theroux into walls and screams insults in his face while in character.
That said, while the documentary appears to be aiming for some kind of illuminating truth in these re-enactments, they often feel like aimless filler. The real Miscavige comes across in video footage as a confident, manipulative sociopath who is very good at telling gullible people with disposable income the things they are desperate to hear, but unfortunately Theroux is unable to ever meet the man. This has the effect of making Perez’ caricature little more than, well, caricature, as well as leaving Miscavige as a strangely abstract boogeyman figure, rather than fleshing out the undoubtedly more complex and nuanced human being behind the image.
Rathbun has some interesting anecdotes about his time as part of the movement, but he himself remains frustratingly difficult to get a real grip on. He seems as adept as Theroux at evasion and obfuscation, and honestly, by the end of the film there is a sense that we haven’t really learned a whole lot about the guy. Aside from him, there are only two or three other (brief) points of view in the whole documentary, and the lack of a wider field of opinions and experiences works to the film’s detriment. There are a few amusingly strange moments where Theroux and his crew find themselves being filmed by Scientologists who seem to be making their own counter-documentary, and an ominous pickup truck with blacked out windows appears to follow Theroux at one point, but the absurd nature of these encounters doesn’t quite distract from the sense that there just isn’t a lot of genuine substance to the whole thing.
It does at least make clear just how frightening Scientology is. The movement is commonly treated as a joke; seen as a bunch of rich people doing strange things in the service of strange ideals, but a fundamentally harmless bunch of nonsense. Well, surprise, it certainly appears to be a deeply manipulative and abusive cult. Of course, anyone with a brain in their head is going to see Scientology for what it actually is without this documentary’s help; it merely makes more explicit the idea that its members are brainwashed and its leaders are deeply amoral, power-hungry predators. My Scientology Movie seems to be solely concerned with saying to the viewer, ‘hey, did you know Scientology is really weird and sinister?’ which, frankly, inspires little more reaction than ‘well, duh’.