TV Preview

Alan Cooperman Previews HBO Documentary "The Trials of Ted Haggard"

The Haggard family, in a portrait for Alexandra Pelosi's documentary,
The Haggard family, in a portrait for Alexandra Pelosi's documentary, "The Trials of Ted Haggard": From left, Christy, Ted, Gayle, Alex, Elliot, and Marcus Haggard. (Nora Feller - HBO)
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

A few years ago, Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based evangelical radio ministry, distributed a booklet that advised parents of preschool boys who dress in girls' clothing, play with dolls and show other "pre-homosexual" tendencies to take immediate corrective action, such as encouraging a boy to "pound a square wooden peg into a square hole."

That would be funny if it weren't part of a mind-set that tortures many people well beyond childhood. For a glimpse of that torture from an emotionally safe distance, you can't do better than to watch Alexandra Pelosi's documentary "The Trials of Ted Haggard," which airs tonight on HBO.

Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), picks up where a big news story left off. Whatever happened to the Rev. Ted Haggard, pastor of a 14,000-member evangelical megachurch in Colorado Springs and president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals, after the revelation in 2006 that he'd bought methamphetamines and massages from a male prostitute?

"The Trials of Ted Haggard" shows us something we're starting to see a lot of: a successful, middle-aged white man in Middle America looking for a job. Forced to leave his pulpit and get out of Colorado in return for a year's severance pay from the New Life Church that he and his wife, Gayle, founded 22 years earlier, Haggard and his family begin their new life in a borrowed house in Scottsdale, Ariz.

At first, he seems to be playing, literally as well as figuratively. In one of several outlandish camera angles, Pelosi gives us a golf ball's-eye view of Haggard on a Scottsdale course, swinging a club with a beginner's clumsiness. But after he's pounded round balls into round holes for a while, he embarks on a round of job interviews. Pelosi, a bubbly, ingratiating interviewer, is along for the ride, prepping this preppy-looking guy who plans to say truthfully -- but only if asked -- that he lost his last job because of a sexual impropriety. With his goofy grin, perfect teeth and jaunty confidence, you think he can't fail.

But he does. He's a total failure in the secular world, as he admits to Pelosi in a singularly self-reflective moment. And it dawns on the viewer, as suddenly and sadly as it apparently dawned on Haggard, that this is real. Soon enough, he's out of the borrowed house, dragging Gayle and two of their (apparently home-schooled) teenage children from motel to motel with all their possessions in a U-Haul. He's walking through affluent cul-de-sacs hanging literature on front-door knobs. But it's not Bible tracts he's peddling. It's come-ons for mortgage refinancing and health insurance. And he's not getting any callbacks.

You can't help thinking that Haggard, a shamed man, should have a little more shame. Oh, he's contrite about the sexual impropriety: He tells Pelosi that when he was 7 years old, he engaged in some same-sex "experimentation," and it "blew up" again when he was 50, which was a failure, a weakness, a big mistake, a sin. But why is he allowing a documentary maker to film him and his wife and kids in these mortifying, reduced circumstances -- desperate for work, borrowing money, living out of suitcases, even talking about suicide? Is it self-pity?

No, it's not (mainly). 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. Down and out, depraved and despised, having possessed everything and having lost everything, he still does not renounce God. On a Saturday evening in a parked car in a forlorn garage in somewhere or other, he and Gayle read their favorite Bible passages to each other. "That'll get you through the night," he says. "That'll get you through the night," she echoes.

Pelosi's camera angles ooze intimacy. You're right there in the car. In one cringe-inducing scene, you're in bed with Haggard in a motel room. For a metaphorical moment, you're in the closet with him, too.

But the intimacy is false -- to me, at least, more false than the evangelism. The solace Haggard takes from the Bible appears to be real: there's no reason to doubt the depth of his faith. Haggard's past hypocrisy is undeniable, but he tells Pelosi that he never preached hatred against gays -- and it's true, he didn't. To the secular, liberal public, all evangelicals are the same, so Ted Haggard and James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson seem interchangeable. But, in fact, among evangelical leaders Haggard was viewed as a moderate, a cautious reformer who urged his brethren to speak civilly about Islam and backed efforts by the National Association of Evangelicals to treat climate change as a religious issue. A lot of his ostensible compadres were delighted to see him fall.

The villains in Pelosi's documentary are the dour men who took over Haggard's church and forced his family into exile. They wear shirts a size too large around the neck. They are unsmiling, businesslike, corporate in the worst sense of the word. When they pronounce Haggard cured -- "completely heterosexual" -- he just laughs and says they're trying to be nice.

Haggard is the one who's nice. No matter where you stand on the culture wars, you can't help but like him. 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 (one hour) premieres tonight at 8 on HBO.

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