|HBO revisits Ted Haggard in a new documentary. (PHIL MCCARTEN/reuters)|
HBO's "The Trials of Ted Haggard" will certainly irritate some viewers. The 42-minute documentary is a deeply sympathetic portrait of Ted Haggard after he was fired from the New Life Church in 2006 for sex with a male prostitute. The former pastor is presented as a broke and broken man, in desperate exile from Colorado for 18 months, denied the very forgiveness that the church is built on.
Haggard's aggressively bright, rabbity smile persists throughout the film, which premieres tonight at 8. But we are asked to see it as a smile through pain, a brave smile. Directed by Alexandra Pelosi, the movie follows Haggard on a failed job interview - "If they don't Google me, I'll get the job," he tells Pelosi with pathos - and through a series of temporary living situations in Arizona. With his wife, Gayle, and their children, he's a nomad martyr, admitting to suicidal feelings during the early days of his "crisis."
"At this stage of my life," he says, "I'm a loser."
Pelosi first mingled with evangelical Christians - and Haggard - in her 2007 HBO documentary "Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi." "Trials" serves as an epilogue to that superficial tour of fundamentalist culture, since the Haggard scandal broke after the filming. With her casual, friendly manner, Pelosi now focuses solely on Haggard and gets him on the record responding to his own past comments. As a preacher, Haggard was not an extreme hater, but he nonetheless condemned gays and urged them to change.
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.
For one thing, the Haggard case requires more specific information than Pelosi provides - about the specifics of Haggard's severance package, for example. In the middle of the movie, during which we've heard much about the Haggards' money woes, we learn they still own a house in Colorado. It comes out of the blue and undermines the credibility of the narrative. That Haggard feels financially desperate is interesting, but we deserve to know if his feelings are based in fact. If they aren't, well, that's interesting, too.
Likewise, it is fascinating to hear Haggard talk frankly about how he continues to fight off his own same-sex attractions, but that he is choosing to be straight. Still, Pelosi fails to push Haggard further, beyond what feels like self-deception or denial. Does he ever doubt that being gay is a choice? We don't get too much more than a nod-and-wink assuring us that Haggard's heterosexuality is back on track: "I knew from time to time that there wasn't the level of intimacy that I desired," Gayle says, looking knowingly. "That has been changed through this process."
Recently, news emerged that the New Life Church has been paying a confidential legal settlement to a man in his 20s who was involved with Haggard when Haggard was the pastor. As that controversy plays out, "The Trials of Ted Haggard" seems even less revealing. Pelosi doesn't ask Haggard about other same-sex relationships, or about whether he has been in love with a man. The movie has the style, but none of the substance, of intimacy.