Review: 'My Scientology Film'

Former 'Metro' writer searches for truth amid outrageous absurdity
Things only get more bizarre as Louis Theroux dives deeper into L. Ron Hubbard's religion in 'My Scientology Film.'

Here is a rollicking movie about the fate of all the planets in the universe. Former Metro writer Louis Theroux's comic yet frightening My Scientology Film—co-written by Theroux, directed by John Dower and released by the BBC—shows a similar approach to the work of Michael Moore, whom Theroux worked with for a while. Theroux is slightly rumpled, his shirt tails usually out, his hair a little untidy. The British accent sometimes disarms the wrathful Yankee.

Trying to get an interview with the secretive leaders of the Church of Scientology, Theroux starts out in L.A. The church's strength in Hollywood isn't happenstance. Under "Project Celebrity," founder L. Ron Hubbard sought famous disciples such as Greta Garbo and James Stewart. Actors, always seeking reassurance and structure, seem particularly drawn to the faith.

We see these actors' anxieties as Theroux casts docudrama scenes to stage the abuse described by a few high-level exiles from the church. Apostates allege false imprisonment, beatings, and even nonviolent but pervasive intimidation by novelty T-shirt wearing "squirrel busters" going after "squirrels" (defectors).

It's a different world than the one seem in official videos, with awards-show swank, crimson curtains, and thundering narrators boasting of the universal reach of the church. Worldwide and beyond; the church believes disciples are meant to rescue the entire universe in their future lives. The work is forwarded by the church's top echelon, the Sea Organization—the Jesuits of this order.

The crypto-naval uniforms and secret rituals are something H. L. Mencken would have understood; they reflect our national longing for brass and buttons. So, also, do the boot camp-like confrontations, the multilevel marketing structure, and the contracts signed for terms of a billion years. (Talk about a nondisclosure agreement.) As for the legends that hold this church together—a story of alien holocaust in the distant past—are they weirder than the credo ad absurdum tenets in more name-brand religions?

My Scientology Film acknowledges the church's public side, its charitable contributions and freeway cleanups. It's clear that Theroux doesn't intend to drag the faith through the mud. Rather, it seems he is seeking simply to land an interview with Scientology's head honcho, David Miscavige, who took over after Hubbard's ascension into the next world. Miscavige hasn't gone on-camera for a reporter since Ted Koppel was hosting Nightline.

Theroux has a droll, deadpan style, unflinching during a scene of being broken down in a staged, mock-Scientology cleansing session: "You're not a very good journalist!" his interrogator screams in his face. It's an unusual documentary; even the scenes of driving around town, capturing B-roll are telling. Los Angeles vistas are accompanied by Dan Jones' superb orchestral soundtrack. The music has the subtropical lushness of Henry Mancini, and the spy-movie tension of Lalo Schifrin; Jones uses a sound-alike cue from Mission: Impossible over the reveal of the actor Theroux hired to play the universe's most famous Scientologist, Tom Cruise.

The best time for two men to talk to each other is when they're driving, because they don't have to meet each other's eyes. In these driving scenes, Theroux and former inspector general of the church Marty Rathbun visit the religion's Riverside-area compound. They're told by angry security guards that the church owns the very road they're driving on.

More difficulties arise when Theroux tries to get Rathbun to confront his own past in harassing defectors when he was in the Sea Organization. The final blowup by this subject sums up the risky part in any reporter's career—the worry that, during the task of introducing daylight, you've just made someone's life worse.

Theroux faces chilling letters from Scientology lawyers: "You are embarked on a project that is run through with religious bigotry," one warns. He's followed by a truck with tinted windows. A mysterious cameraman and an observer stand on watch outside his studio; when questioned, they explain: "We're making a documentary about people."

Seeking leads about the church online, Theroux gets this response: "Are you sure there's no skeletons in your closet?" We're left unsure if that's a joke or a threat. My Scientology Film's novelty is it finds a bleak humor in the problems of a reporter trying to crack a stone wall.

My Scientology Film
UR, 100 Min.
Now Streaming

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