By James Hancock April 18th, 2016
Louis Theroux is back with My Scientology Movie, one of the best documentaries of his career. I first discovered Theroux when he appeared on the podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, a fascinating interview where Theroux was essentially feeling out whether or not Joe Rogan would a good topic for one of his films. Ultimately he realized that Joe was not quite crazy enough for a film but over the course of their conversation they exposed me to some highlights from Theroux’s career which I quickly hunted down after the interview. I soon learned that for the last fifteen years or so Theroux has been writing and producing an enormous body of work covering all sorts of fascinating topics including religious extremism, exotic pet owners, swinger culture, life in prison and big game hunting. As a host, Theroux has a unique style. He is calm, unassuming, rational, very English, incredibly polite and without any clear agenda of any kind other than learning about the world and the strange people that populate it. His approach yields incredible results with so many of his subjects letting their guard down allowing both Theroux and his viewers a look inside various subcultures that are normally completely closed off to outsiders. But L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, the subject of Theroux’s latest film (directed by John Dower), puts all of Theroux’s skills to the test where just the process of attempting to make a documentary becomes as interesting as any exposé about the world’s most powerful cult. Luckily for New Yorkers, the film is playing repeatedly at the Tribeca Film Festival for the next week and I strongly urge everyone to make an effort to see it.
While the Church of Scientology made every possible effort to roadblock the making of this film, the key to its success is the filmmakers’ access to Marty Rathbun, the former Inspector General of the Church of Scientology and for many years the most feared enforcer for David Miscavige, the Church’s mysterious and allegedly violent leader who assumed control upon the death of L. Ron Hubbard. Marty Rathbun left/escaped from Scientology in 2004 and ever since then has seen his personal life thrown into turmoil by Scientologists using the very same techniques Rathbun perfected during his time with the organization. Rathbun is a complex, haunted man with unresolved feelings about what he did while working for David Miscavige. In an effort to protect the organization from outside threats and maintain the undying loyalty of those still committed to their faith, Rathbun frequently resorted to a wide variety of fear and intimidation tactics, usually in the form of their “auditing” technique at a remote location known as the Hole. To this day, Scientologists whose faith might be wavering are held at the Hole in subhuman conditions that they voluntarily subject themselves to. As a way of looking inside his time and the events leading up to his defection, Rathbun and Theroux hire actors to play David Miscavige and Tom Cruise in order to dramatize a series of chapters in Rathbun’s life. The result is a film that would be the funniest movie of the year if the events portrayed were not so utterly alarming.
While the film Going Clear (2015) did an extraordinary job of presenting a comprehensive view of the strange, dangerous behavior that is pervasive within the cult, what I love about My Scientology Movie is the personal focus. Marty Rathbun was the most feared man in the organization for several decades and in the absence of David Miscavige himself, there is no better insider’s perspective to be had. In addition to the reenactments, Theroux makes several attempts at investigating the Hole in person and soon finds himself being followed, confronted and filmed at seemingly all hours by blind followers of the Church of Scientology. But rather than be intimidated, Theroux uses these opportunities to try and engage on a personal level. As I wrote earlier, Theroux couldn’t be a nicer human being and as he attempts to talk with these hostile and cowardly minions of the church, the contrast in personalities tells us everything that we would have liked to have learned had the organization been willing simply to open its doors to Theroux for a proper interview. I found myself glued to the screen every minute. Admittedly I suffer from a negative bias toward organizations like the Church of Scientology making me a very receptive audience member for this kind of film, but I think most film lovers will find this documentary to be absolutely riveting. I’m crossing my fingers that the documentary enjoys a nice wide release here in the United States once the film is through playing the festival circuit, but for now every New Yorker has a very compelling reason to head to Lower Manhattan and enjoy this remarkable film.
I am one of the Co-Hosts of Wrong Reel.