‘Don’t do it, you’re crazy’, or words to that effect, is what met Louis Theroux when he reached out to the Twittersphere asking for help making his roguishly charming new documentary. Swathed around the practice of Scientology, a body of beliefs that was created by self-mythologising sci-fi novelist L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, is a foggy shroud of mystery, and controversial reputation that it is a religion built on tyranny. Perhaps inevitably, My Scientology Movie struggles to inform on the former, but it more than makes up for it by acutely addressing the latter.
The pairing of Louis Theroux and Scientology is a match made in heaven. Retaining his trademark personality of unassuming passivity, the joyfully mischievous journalist throws himself right into the fray, baiting senior members of the sect into confrontations where, without exception, they always blow a fuse. Particularly effective are Theroux’s attempt to gain access to the faith’s Gold Base, a SPECTRE style lair complete with perimeter fences, concrete blockades, and a strong presence of security personnel.
Sequences such as these are supreme fun, packed with infectiously impish, Michael Moore-esque wit that’ll have even those with the stiffest of personalities crying with laughter. But they fail to tell us anything that those who watched John Sweeney’s Panorama special ‘Scientology and Me’ some years back wouldn’t know already. Theroux addresses this obvious flaw in an amusingly unconventional way, partnering up with disgraced former Scientologist Mark Rathbun, and using his in-depth knowledge to recreate scenarios from inside the church using paid actors.
The use of re-enactments is sometimes stagnating, although it’s impossible not to be transfixed by Andrew Perez’s incarnation of church leader David Miscavige. But moreover, they fail to dissect the divisive creed with as much depth as you’d like. The conclusion Theroux gives is what he offered us in the beginning; put bluntly, this is a belief system built on fear and ruled with an iron fist, something reinforced by the church’s denunciation of the movie, and their decision to have Theroux put under surveillance.
Rarely does that lack of fresh insight stop My Scientology Movie from being anything less than high-calibre entertainment though. Director John Dower allows Theroux space to carry the film throughout, complementing his engaging style with energetic visuals and Dan Jones’ surging score. Guaranteed to spark debate between all who see it, this is a documentary at once strange, scary and stupefyingly funny.