Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Trials of Ted Haggard

Originally published at SpoutBlog:


Alexandra Pelosi’s “The Trials of Ted Haggard” is a behind-the-scenes peek at the fallen pastor post meth-and-male-escort-scandal as he struggles to rebuild his life now that he’s been banished from his Colorado Springs mega-church and forced into exile in Arizona. Traveling from “safe house to safe house” with his loving wife Gayle (who explains her decision to stand by her man with a no-nonsense, “I don’t believe in writing people off,” and well-adjusted sons, they literally rely on the kindness of strangers. And if you think I’m being metaphorically melodramatic describing Haggard and his kin in biblical terms of banishment from their holy land, forced to wander like ancient Jews, think again. One of Pelosi’s frequently used title cards actually explains that the New Life Church inexplicably fixed it so the sweet-natured Haggard not only can’t preach in Colorado or anywhere else – he’s been booted from the entire Rocky Mountain state!

Unfortunately, Pelosi’s documentary has a haphazard, thrown-together-at-the-last-minute kind of feel, with new footage randomly inter-cut with video of old sermons (the sexual misconduct accusation by a church member that recently came to light is even tacked on at the end via one of those title cards that fill in the story’s gaps). The film doesn’t delve into the reasoning behind Haggard’s punishment from the Colorado Springs evangelical community, nor the impetus driving those Arizona Christians to take the Haggard family in. And that’s a major missed opportunity for Pelosi. As someone who came of age in the vibrant hardcore/new wave/goth scene in Colorado Springs in the late 80s it’s hard for me to imagine any organization in Colorado being able to ban an individual from the whole darn state. Colorado, never a hotbed of liberalism, has mysteriously become part of the Bible Belt while Arizona embodies the “live and let live” ethos of Sin City (the state’s proximity to Nevada alluded to in the film by Haggard himself who points out a church cross not far from the border of Sodom in the sand). And yet this important context for those trials of Ted Haggard is never remotely explored.

Pelosi, who got her start as a producer for “Dateline,” has crafted a “CNN: Special Investigations Unit” type piece that quickly skims the surface, rather than deeply probing the world of this thrillingly complicated and refreshingly sincere man who bravely refuses to define himself in strict and easy terms of gay, straight and bi. And if anyone was suited to doing just this it was the director herself, who got to know Pastor Ted personally while filming Friends of God. The two are a perfect match, with Pelosi’s line of enthusiastic, hyper-inquisitive questioning as bubbly and bighearted as the ever-optimistic Haggard’s disposition. When Pelosi asks, “How does it feel to be in exile?” Haggard honestly replies, “We’re miserable,” staring straight into the camera. There’s no flinching from the truth or spinning of words with this self-pitiless “sinner,” whose adultery and drug use trump admitted homosexual impulses in his view of sins to be repented, and who uses adversity as an opportunity to grow.

Instead of lamenting unemployment Haggard, whose bachelor’s degree in English bible renders him a high school graduate in the secular world, makes lemons from lemonade, gushing about feeling like a teenager as he goes on the first job interview of his life. “If they don’t Google me I’ll get the job,” he surmises afterwards. Nope, there’s nothing sensational about Haggard the traveling health insurance salesman who offers roasted marshmallows to his houseguests. Like Willy Loman he’s just a struggling family guy doing the best he can to keep his loved ones from becoming destitute, less a fallen man of the cloth than a recession-proof hero, a motivational speaker and self-help guru who truly practices what he preaches. Now if only the equally highly motivated Pelosi would have focused her lens on how he got that way.

No comments: