How Does a Pastor Survive a Sex Scandal?
An HBO documentary on Ted Haggard, shot by the daughter of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, takes a sympathetic view of his life in disgrace.
January 29, 2009 - 12:57 am
The Trials of Ted Haggard isn’t the hit piece one might suspect of a project directed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi.
Then again, it’s hard to determine just what Trials truly is.
The exasperating documentary, airing tonight on HBO, tracks the disgraced pastor’s life following news he had had a sexual relation with a male prostitute.
The documentary’s timing is fortuitous for anyone eager to swat Haggard for his actions. News broke this week of another sex scandal involving the once-mighty pastor.
Twisted serendipity aside, those looking for new insights into the man, or the reasons for his indiscretions, will come away frustrated.
The ex-evangelical leader fully cooperated with the new documentary, which clocks in at a tidy 42 minutes. What we see is Haggard trying to put his life back together, a feat so humbling even his harshest critics will come away with some empathy for him.
The program opens with footage of Haggard at his peak, performing before thousands of worshipers. We soon meet the modern-day Haggard, a father and husband living in exile from his Colorado home thanks to an agreement forged with New Life Church in Colorado Springs in the scandal’s wake.
The Haggards shuffle from one house to another for the first year of his exile, staying with kind strangers while Haggard tries to find a new line of work. He’s initially giddy about the process, but the reality of his situation — national infamy and few secular job skills — changes his mood.
As he explains following one promising job interview, “If they don’t Google me I’ll get the job.”
Needless to say, his job search doesn’t bear immediate fruit, but he’s consoled by his faithful wife and his unshakable faith. Both are rock solid for him, and he needs both dearly.
Gayle Haggard plays a small part in the presentation, but she comes across as sincere, not a robotic “stand by your man” construct.
The Haggards have little money, few job prospects, and have earned a lifetime membership in the Shame Hall of Fame. And the media won’t ever let him forget it.
Pelosi previously shot footage of Haggard for a documentary called Friends of God, and clearly the two connected well enough to make this mini-doc possible. That chummy bond wasn’t strong enough to coax Haggard to open up for her cameras.
Haggard puts up a brave front, grinning hard through adversity and only letting a few embittered emotions bubble up now and then.
Pelosi should have leveraged their connection harder, at least for the sake of the project. Her questions, which we often are privy to hear thanks to her open style, are hopelessly vague. But even when a query hits home she fails to pounce on a penetrating follow-up. Instead, she lets the moment slip away time and again.
When Haggard says some people would rather he be a murderer than gay, Pelosi lets the statement hang in the air without a follow-up. A lost opportunity, indeed.
And what are Haggard’s precise thoughts on homosexuality, both what causes someone to embrace such an alternative lifestyle and how he feels about those who proudly engage in gay relationships? Or, better yet, what message do his actions send to young and confused gay people the nation over?
Perhaps a follow-up documentary will dig deeper.
Pelosi’s shooting style involves catching her subjects at unflattering angles or while they’re walking to or from somewhere. It’s meant to convey a sense of familiarity, or at least spontaneity.
But not only is this a distracting approach for the viewer, it doesn’t reveal anything noteworthy. Her angle choices don’t appear to be mean-spirited. She shows surprising tenderness toward her subject.
A few intriguing items are gleaned from the film. Haggard casually mentions that the therapists he worked with after the scandal broke proved to be the most helpful toward his recovery. Left unsaid is how his former colleagues weren’t a part of that redemption. Haggard also alludes to a childhood trauma that could have set the stage for his eventual downfall, but that’s all we learn about his past.
The pastor continues to struggle with his sexual feelings, another potent theme that isn’t fully explored.
Pelosi, who previously shot the surprisingly evenhanded Journeys with George, a look at Gov. George W. Bush on the campaign trail, isn’t out to crucify Haggard. Her film offers as sympathetic a look at the man, and his disgraceful exit from the church, as possible.
The bigger question is, what is she trying to say about the fallen pastor?