Smarm & Exploitation in Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie

If you’ve written enough screenplays, you learn that the main difference between the good guy and the bad guy in a movie is that for one, you know his motives for the actions he takes in the story, and for the other, you don’t.

Good guys can kill people, blow up cars and bridges – just like the bad guys do. But to make one of them the good guy, and the other the bad guy, you simply show why the good guy blows up the bridge and you don’t show why the bad guy does it. This way, when the audience sees the bad guy blowing up a bridge for no reason, they can only conclude that the reason the bad guy blows up the bridge is because he’s pure evil.

If you’ve edited enough video, you know that cutting one half second off a video clip can completely change what emotions you feel when you see the clip. And leaving out dozens or hundreds of hours of video that you shot can turn a non-fiction documentary into a work of pure fiction.

Thus, when you’ve written enough screenplays and edited enough video, you know just how manipulative any documentary can be.

As an Ex-Scientologist and long-time critic of Scientology, I used to pine for the day when real reporters, prize-winning journalists, and award-winning moviemakers would finally get the balls to take on Scientology and expose their fraud and abuse to the world.

I should have cautioned myself to be careful what I pined for: Louis Theroux’s “My Scientology Movie” is one of the smarmiest, most exploitative, and manipulative documentaries I have ever seen.


Before I watched My Scientology Movie, Louis Theroux was an admirable movie maker in my eyes. I have not seen every one of his documentaries, but the ones I have seen were quite magical to me. He transported me into alien worlds and introduced me to what he seemed to find there, peppering the aliens with high-pitched questions that appeared to reveal their true inner character to me – all the good, and all the bad.

Once, he took me (a boy from the cornfields) into the heart of Harlem. He spoke to african american activists there and made it seem like I understood them better. I came away with way more respect for Al Sharpton and what he was trying to achieve with his life’s work, after spending a Louis Theroux “Weird Weekend” with him.

Louis Theroux made me think that he was shining an objective and unbiased light on whatever he was pointing his camera at. His magic made me believe that what he showed me was simply what he’d found there, nothing contrived and certainly nothing to exploit to make himself rich or famous.

This was my attitude coming into My Scientology Movie.

Louis Therouxs My Scientology Movie is an Alien World I’m Quite Familiar With

Unlike Al Sharpton’s Harlem, though, after 30 years of living both inside as a Scientologist, and outside as a critic of it, Scientology was an environment that was not alien to me. It was an environment I knew very well.

Since I’m also a little bit familiar with the movie business, I knew that Simon Chinn and the other producers raised the money from their investors to make this movie, and with Louis Theroux as the star, I’m pretty sure the pitch to get the money was to invoke Louis’ magical schtick. They most likely promised their investors a chance of traveling straight into the middle of the weird and alien world of Scientology, and perhaps to get David Miscavige on camera for the first time in 25 years.

So having raised the money to make this movie, as with all movie makers, they were likely under intense financial pressure to deliver something on camera to get butts into the seats so their investors could get paid back and they could become fabulously wealthy.

When it then became clear that David Miscavige was not going to let himself be Louis’ next Al Sharpton, and Scientology’s secretive Int Base was not going to be the next Harlem, the financial pressure to revive this failing concept must have been tremendous on Chinn, Dower, Theroux, and the entire crew.

And so just like any other potential loser facing huge financial losses, Louis and the others obviously became desperate, and they tried all kinds of tricks to get Scientology to react to them on camera. Trick after trick failed. And so they turned on the one guy who had put himself out there the most, Marty Rathbun, to be the stand-in pinata.

In one scene, the Church of Scientology sent a team of Scientology thugs to confront Marty on the street and threaten his child. Louis was there to witness it. This incident had obviously upset Rathbun, as it would anyone. What does Louie do?

Watch what Louis does to Marty, with the cameras rolling, right after Marty has his child threatened by a bunch of ruthless, fanatic cult members:

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You could easily believe that Marty Rathbun has done nothing to expose the fraud and abuse of Scientology – especially since this movie leaves all that out – and believe this was all “Marty’s Karma”. Yes, Marty Rathbun has been an asshole in the past. But nobody deserved this – especially just to get some kind of conflict on camera to sell some tickets.

But it’s worse than that. Earlier in the movie, there is a scene that I had a chance to talk to Marty about, as the editing looked very suspicious to me. I asked Marty where the audio in the very last part of this scene came from. Watch the scene first, and be sure to note everything Marty says off-frame beginning with “I’m not participating in that shit!…”

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At the end of this very carefully crafted scene, Louie asks “Is he all right?”

No Louie, he’s not all right, you asshole. He is an ex-cult member who has just gone through one of the most severe cases of extended mind-fuck that this cult can deliver to anyone and he is in the middle of trying to deal with that, and he is telling you that he does not want to participate – and exactly why.

Marty Rathbun told me that everything he said at the end of that scene was said in private to the producer, Simon Chinn. But his mic was still on and they spliced the audio into this scene to make it appear that he was ranting to the whole crew. Watch the scene again with this knowledge of the editing job they did, and see how they are manipulating you to feel about Marty Rathbun.

With this knowledge, watch the whole documentary again and see how they played you.

Yes they hired actors to play Miscavige, and to play Tom Cruise. But it was clear to me that this was just a set-up to get Marty Rathbun more involved, dangling a chance to tell his story as so many others had to Louis Theroux before. And when David Miscavige proved too smart to fall for any of this, by the way My Scientology Movie was edited, it almost appeared that Marty Rathbun was their target the whole time.

The result was a smarmy and exploitative mess, even to the point of cruelty to a guy who did not deserve it – especially since they didn’t even pay him.

Get that – Marty Rathbun works for months, maybe even years with these guys – who all get paid. And they do this to him for no money.

Not one word was mentioned in this documentary of the incredibly valuable work that Marty Rathbun has done to expose Scientology abuse after leaving Scientology. The only subject matter allowed in this documentary was all the bad guy stuff he had done when he was still in. In the editing, they set him up to be the bad guy so that when Louis went in for the kill at that particularly vulnerable moment in the first scene above, Louis did not look like the bad guy he really is here.

Louis Theroux should look bad – way worse than Marty Rathbun for making this movie.

As you might guess by now, I’m pretty disgusted by Louis Therouxs My Scientology Movie.

It’s like when a magician blows his trick and you see how he does it. All the magic of the trick is gone. And now other Theroux Docs I’ve seen which I had earlier admired, and which employed his same schtick, aren’t as magical to me any more.

This documentary is a clumsy and cruel mess that was not enlightening, nor even entertaining. When they couldn’t get Miscavige on camera, they should have pulled the plug on the whole thing.

But because they don’t know anything about Scientology, and don’t really care to except to find a way to make money off of people who have been harmed by it, they thought that Marty Rathbun would be a good substitute for David Miscavige. It’s their business, after all. And knowing that brings a whole new level of smarm and exploitation – without ever really getting anyone any closer to the truth about Scientology.

Grade: D Minus

11 thoughts on “Smarm & Exploitation in Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie”

  1. Did you notice how the manipulation/embarassment started right away in the very first scene where Marty appeared? Marty was forced to ignobly get himself into the front seat from the back seat and if you look closely, you can see Marty didn’t miss what THAT was all about either.

    That was the best parts of the movie to me. Watching Marty not miss a thing.

    • Louis ‘ignobly’ got into the car the same way. I’m assuming the car was wired up with sound and cameras and that is why they could not get into the front seat the regular way.
      You say “Marty did not miss what that was all about”
      I sure did…..would you care to explain it to me?
      Are you alleging that was some kind of set up to make Marty look less agile than the basketball star he claims to be?
      If it was some kind of dastardly plan, why did Marty go along? Why not ‘confront and shatter’ and say ‘I would prefer to enter the car through the front seat’?

        • Virginia
          The following is a genuine question…no snark intended
          Why do scientologists and ex-scientologists answer questions that way? The ‘my comment speaks for itself’ or the ‘I said what I had to say about it already’


          All I am asking you to do is to clarify your statement. I watched that scene and I assumed they climbed in from the back for a reason. If there was some sort of evil intent on Louis’ part and Marty ‘didn’t miss what that was about’ why did Marty go along with it.

          Alanzo is always asking his readers to think outside the narrative which is being presented (which is an excellent suggestion). Maybe scientologists are not used to being questioned beyond the statements because everyone will automatically agree with them

          I was genuinely curious as to what motivation you thought was behind this. And how Marty saw it for what it was – because to me it looked like Marty did what was required, as did Louis

          To infer sinister motives on a straightforward scenario can’t be a fun way to live, no matter what Tom Cruise says (“it’s so much fun!”)

        • Put as simply as I can, right now I don’t feel the need (nor do I have any interest) in whether you or anyone else agrees or disagrees with what I said, or whether you or anyone else understands or didn’t understand what I said. That may change in the future, but right now I just don’t feel any motivation to “clarify” it.

          Don’t take it personally.

  2. Scientologists think they have the right to COMPEL an answer simply because they asked a question, or to act like something is wrong with the person when they don’t feel inclined to answer just because they were asked.

    Its interesting to watch the same tactic show up in the most unlikely places – like in Louis Theroux’s movie.

  3. This was a strange documentary to watch. I don’t know if I’m astute like you to notice weird editing and stuff, but I came away thinking Theroux was quite an asshole and Marty was more sympathetic for it. I figured that was the point, but I imagine I am pretty off considering I tend to drift on the bits when they talk of Marty’s harsh past. Like when Theroux has everyone clap, I thought we were supposed to feel more for Marty. Might be that I’m ex-religious and so felt my sympathies differently, but thanks for your piece. I never thought Theroux was completely honest in the way he presented himself tbh, and has alot of that British snark about him, but this doc was certainly a strange one.


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