Nothing inspires an intriguing documentary more than a good mystery. The unknown provides a ready storyline, and all the filmmaker has to do is find the right narrative in which to investigate it. Barbara Kopple knows that. Werner Herzog does, too. And mystery, in one form or another, has been the central feature of every Errol Morris film from “The Thin Blue Line” to “The Unknown Known.”
The mysteries in question, of course, come in a variety of forms. The factor that Kopple, Herzog and Morris have in common is the human experience: What are people, really, and why do they do what they do?
Director John Dower asks similar kinds of questions in his documentary film "My Scientology Movie," which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater. The difference comes in the way Dower frames both his questions and his overall investigation.
For one thing, he uses Louis Theroux – filling the role of host, or what the British term a “presenter” – as his surrogate. It is Theroux, the son of writer Paul Theroux and a documentarian in his own right, who meets with various former Scientologists, who treads on – or at least near – private Scientology property and who oversees casting of Dower’s movie within a movie.
Which is the second thing that Dower does differently. He’s not content to copy Alex Gibney, whose 2015 documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” provides a stunning inside look at the religion that the late L. Ron Hubbard founded. No, Dower is more of an entertainer, and he imbues his storytelling style – fronted by the wry, nerdy Theroux – with a somewhat lighter touch.
And so Theroux oversees the hiring of a cast of actors whose job is to play out a number of scenes alleged to have taken place behind closed doors – scenes that in real life featured Scientology leader David Miscavige and, at times, one of his most notable acolytes, actor Tom Cruise. They play out under the direction of a man named Marty Rathbun, formerly one of Miscavige’s chief enforcers of church discipline.
So while we see the real Miscagive and Cruise only in archival footage, we see one of their actorly counterparts – the one playing Miscavige – commit misdeeds, including physical assaults, that stand in dire contrast with the real man’s shining public persona.
Then amid Theroux’s sometimes Monty Python-like bumbling confrontations with various Scientology officials, Dower does a third thing: He has Theroux begin to question Rathbun, the very person who is his main link to the disaffected Scientology community.
It’s a natural thing to do, because why wouldn’t you question the motivations of someone who had been active in the church for more than 20 years but who now is preaching against it? Yet other than Rathbun’s spouting a few profanities, the sequence never really goes anywhere.
Dower’s “My Scientology Movie” is an intriguing view. The part of the mystery that Dower neglects, though, is the very basis of what Gibney’s film explores: What drew these people to this religion in the first place?