Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Movie Review: My Scientology Movie (2016)



It’s Scientology time again! You know, between the countless jokes that have been made about them over the last several years and last year’s Alex Gibney documentary, I would’ve thought that we had done all we can in terms of talking about the church sci-fi made possible (and no, even a year later, I’m still not talking about the Trekkies). But then in walks one of the most impartial documentarians working today in the form of Louis Theroux, who is almost superhuman in his patience with his subjects. This presents a certain instance that we haven’t really come across in any logical fashion: Sympathy. Sure, Going Clear presented a sympathetic view of people who got caught up in the cult of celebrity that the church has created, but what about the church itself? At this point, making this frankly ludicrous and insane theological practice look sane is a tough order, but if anyone can do it, it’s the guy who spent time with the Westboro Baptists and found reasons to sympathize and feel sorry for them for reasons beyond their pitiful hatred. This is My Scientology Movie.


The plot: Louis Theroux, a noted documentarian for the BBC, wants to make a film highlighting the church of Scientology, in particular its enigmatic leader David Miscavige. Problem is that Miscavige abjectly refuses to be interviewed. To work around this, Theroux works with Mark Rathbun, an outspoken ex-member of the church who used to work closely with Miscavige, to cast an actor that as closely resembles the man as possible to act out scenarios based on accounts from former Scientologists. However, it seems that the church has caught on that he plans to do this, and set out to make things as difficult for Theroux and his colleagues.

It feels odd doing my usual cast list breakdown when doing a documentary. Then again, it’s also odd to see a documentary where the fact that it even has a cast to speak of is one of its bigger selling points. Let’s start with the actual actors: Andrew Perez, given what has been said about Miscavige between this and Going Clear, definitely captures what the legends have said. Conner Stark… okay, even considering the numerous Cruise parodies that have been done, it’d be easy to write this off as an easy imitation, but he seriously nails the mannerisms. Their best respective moments are when they’re playing backgammon with each other, in character, and this rather odd experiment gains further credibility just through their performances. As for the people who aren’t acting (as much), Rathbun has a more immediate presence compared to Going Clear, allowing for a pretty defined and understood depiction of the man’s mindset. And then there’s Theroux himself, and his usual deadpan observant demeanour stays perfectly intact here. One of his greatest comedic strengths is how he can make various kinds of stoic expressions sum up reactions to what his interviewees say at times. That, and he still feels like someone who ultimately just wants to learn.

Dramatic re-enactments are nothing new when it comes to documentaries, but rarely if ever are they taken to this extreme. But, in fairness, it comes about as a reaction to a very extreme response from someone who, by all accounts, is a very extreme lunatic. Even if it is just a facsimile, what we see of Miscavige’s actions definitely drive home just how ugly the hierarchy is when it comes to Scientology. It is at once chilling and hard not to laugh at somewhat, especially when we get to what goes on in The Hole where he starts transforming into DiCaprio in Django Unchained. Then again, this film takes a rather refreshing stance when it comes to the truth as seen on film. Since Theroux has always been a very face-to-face sort of journalist, the stand-ins are depicted as essentially the next best thing to the truth. As documentaries are taken as direct portrayals of real life, what bits of the product that may not be true can often end up drawing major clouds of doubt around the events depicted. This, by comparison, puts all of its resources and capabilities at the forefront so that it is abundantly clear what they are working with to make this film happen. They don’t have the inside scoop like Poitras with Citizenfour or happened upon a crucial moment by chance like Gibney with The Armstrong Lie; they just decided to learn up-front what the church is like as best they could. Actually, in a way, this feels less like a documentary about Scientology and more a documentary about making a documentary about Scientology, as the circumstances around what is being filmed end up taking a lot of the spotlight.

As I’ve stated before, Scientologists don’t exactly have a high opinion of sceptics and non-believers. The film makes it a point of showing that, unlike Gibney, Theroux is doing his filming right on their front porch and the amount of hassle he gets is pretty high. Said hassle ends up resulting in a camera-to-camera confrontation that, when seen in context as opposed to what is shown in the trailer, reaches near-Panahi levels of showing cinema as protest. Hell, what could weirdly be called a running gag in the film is whether or not the church owns a street close to where The Hole purportedly is, and whether Theroux has a right to film there, so the possibility of him just asking for it is both possible and highly unlikely. But, like the inhumanly patient observer that he is, Theroux never loses his cool in the face of the more unsavoury attitude he cops while on the scene. That carries through to his general perception of the church, much like his other doco subjects, in that he doesn’t try and antagonize. The only time that comes close, which oddly enough involves Rathbun, is more out of being inquisitive at the wrong time rather than Theroux trying to attack the guy. Much like with his take on the Westboro Baptist Church, he doesn’t so much give these people just enough rope to hang themselves with as he does follow and talk to them while they go to the hardware store to buy their own rope and tie their own nooses. Basically, anything nasty that comes up only appears either through vocal opinions detached from Theroux or the re-enactments that are themselves cobbled together from first-hand accounts taken by others. This has a far more objective viewpoint than most documentaries like this would be, which is odd considering that this film is ultimately a rather subjective film.

This is marketed as ‘Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Film’ and it is very much his with how much he gets into the thick of things himself as well as what we can see of his personal stakes in the matter. Theroux doesn’t really make documentaries for anyone other than himself, as his work usually comes across like he is doing all of it just so that he can learn for himself how things are in a given sub-group. When he explains the idea of using an actor to serve as Miscavige, it makes the deal look like the closest Theroux will be able to get to actually talking to Miscavige. That said, he doesn’t use fabrication as an excuse to put words in the guy’s mouth; If Perez isn’t sticking to a script made up of actual quotes, then he’s improvising quotes that Rathbun saw a proper likeness to. Even with the prospect of recitation, Theroux retains a rather firm grip on observing and relaying the truth as best as he possibly can and, because of what steps he took, he succeeds on that front. It also helps that this is a far more light-hearted depiction and subsequent reaction to the church’s inner workings. Sure, they don’t hold back on the horrors doled out by the higher-ups but, through Theroux’s comedic straight-man perspective, this film dishes out a lot of laughs thanks to his extremely British reactions to things, not to mention the arguments of the road.

All in all, this is a typically Theroux approach to what is a fairly notorious subject matter, with Theroux himself getting into the thick of it in order to discover for himself just what it is about this church that its followers love and the rest of the world fears. Its approach to filmmaking shows a need to show the truth, even if said truth has been denied access to directly, and even considering how dark the details can get, this is an extremely funny watch. Honestly, I actually like this better than Going Clear, not just because of the lighter tone that makes it easier to sit through but also because of the crew’s proximity to the events. Where Gibney was detached and investigative, Theroux is curious and forth willing to enter the firing line himself in search of answers. It’s better than Bastille Day, as the cast is a lot better rounded and put to better use. Actually, this might have the single best approach to dramatic re-enactments of any documentary I’ve seen yet. However, as good as this film is, I’m guessing my want for escapism from the harsh realities that Scientology represents won out because this ranks just below Eddie The Eagle, an unabashedly silly and fictitious narrative that was also infectious cheery.

1 comment:

  1. They should do a dramatic series from this with the actors because that was the best part. Andrew Perez was exactly how Miscavige is always depicted in the media he was good. Conner Stark nailed cruise in the few scenes we get of him like during the line read when he is in the chair. His intensity and mannerisms and looked exactly like cruise years ago in his prime that was crazy. He should be in more scenes though it would be cool to have seen cruise more because he created so much awareness about Scientology and really is the reason people know. The film overall was great it was a much softer approach than Going Clear which I liked and I found it very funny but also scary because its real. Louis is my favorite and im such a fan of his from the start and this work is an exceptional one of his that everyone should watch.

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