Ted Haggard already defended himself on Oprah yesterday, but tonight filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi will try once again to get us to feel sympathy for the disgraced former evangelical preacher in her HBO documentary.
The film follows Haggard after the church he founded, Colorado’s New Life Church, rejects him once it is revealed that he bought crystal meth and had sex with a gay prostitute. Pelosi documents Haggard's "exile" as he and his family move around Arizona in a U-Haul truck while Haggard interviews for jobs and eventually becomes a traveling insurance salesmen. (Haggard actually agreed to leave for a year in return for his severance pay, but Pelosi doesn't explain this in the film.) Most critics agree that The Trials of Ted Haggard presents a sympathetic view of the man, but can't decide whether this is because Pelosi is trying to tell the poignant tale of a man starting over at middle age, or if she's simply grown too close to Haggard. Below, the critics hash out whether there's a genius to Pelosi questioning Haggard "with all of the tact and nuance of a toddler," as Salon says, or if Pelosi has taken on the role of Haggard's publicist.
The film doesn’t merely document Mr. Haggard’s fall from grace, it also tracks the pathology of his attempt at a comeback. It’s a cautionary tale for disgraced public figures; for viewers it’s a master class in the art of self-serving remorse and hubris dressed up as humility.
It's evangelism. Haggard is looking for a job, but what he's really doing is casting himself as a Job. Pelosi clearly knows this; she's even hinted at it in her title. The quid pro quo that underlies this film is obvious: He's giving her access. She's giving him a pulpit again. And Haggard is a good evangelist. He knows he doesn't need to preach sin and redemption, it's more powerful if he lives it.
No matter where you stand on the culture wars, you can't help but like [Haggard]. He's tortured, and for all this film's real and manufactured intimacy, Pelosi never plumbs how. She doesn't push him to reconcile his biblical theology with the evidence of his own life. She doesn't probe what happened between the experimentation of a 7-year-old and the blow-up of a 50-year-old's life. We sense only that he's tortured, and yet sincere. Sincerely tortured.
"The Trials of Ted Haggard" is a strange, disturbing, imperfect but in the end heartbreaking little film that may wind up being the most powerful indictment of homophobia since "Brokeback Mountain." It's not so much a documentary as it is a series of encounters with a man struggling to hold on to two mutually destructive identities: an evangelical who is not exclusively heterosexual. That he cannot let go of the latter and will not let go of the former makes him a tragic embodiment of the still-raging war between sexuality and religion.
Despite the tendency to dismiss Haggard as another pulpit-pounding hypocrite, Pelosi zeroes in on a more poignant and relatable theme: a man forced to start over at middle age ... Pelosi zooms in close enough to turn Haggard into a semi-tragic figure, literally walking him to the door (under the camera’s lens) on job interviews and having him discuss his situation while lying on a dingy motel bed ... Having clearly gained his confidence, Pelosi peels back the symbol enough to expose fleeting glimpses of the man underneath — peddling only himself, and, as in his door-to-door gig, unable to make the sale.
Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi met Haggard while filming another documentary, and she’s the other major player in this almost 45-minute film, videotaping him with her hand-held camera and cajoling him with questions. She likes him and wants him to succeed, even if his fellow Christians want him to burn ... Pelosi’s affection for Haggard gets in the way of getting a true sense of him. His perpetual ear-to-ear grin is off-putting, and he vacillates between self-pity and self-loathing.
Given her access to Haggard, Pelosi's approach struck me as inadequate. I didn't want to watch an attack of the man or of the church, or a stubbornly balanced profile; but I didn't want to feel that the storyteller was in the pocket of her subject, either. I wanted to see a close-up of a man fallen from grace, not a close-up of his myth-making.
This is the once wildly popular pastor who practically smiled to reporters as he admitted to buying meth and "getting massages" from a male prostitute. Clearly Haggard is a master of disguises, and Pelosi's film doesn't really provide the sort of unforgiving peek behind the curtain that we might've hoped for. At times, in fact, "The Trials of Ted Haggard" feels less like a search for the truth and more like a collaboration between Pelosi (as publicist) and Haggard (as client with a tarnished image) to pull Haggard's name out of the gutter ... Sadly for Haggard and his family, though, thanks to new revelations about his past indiscretions, that isn't about to happen. It looks as if no matter much work Haggard puts into revising and reimagining his life story, the truth will wriggle its way to the surface eventually
The Trials of Ted Haggard airs tonight on HBO at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.