Ted Haggard’s spectacular fall as leader of Colorado’s New Life Church — admitting to “sexual immorality” and purchasing methamphetamines from a male prostitute — provided a newsmaking coda to Alexandra Pelosi’s last HBO documentary, “Friends of God.” Now Pelosi is back with a brisk follow-up devoted specifically to Haggard’s time in “exile,” viewing the pastor, if not his former flock, with obvious affection and sympathy. 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.
Haggard’s disgrace provided an unexpected money shot to Pelosi’s 2007 look at Southern and Western evangelicals, whom she approached as if they were strange (if mostly benign) creatures from an alien world — which they are, perhaps, to HBO’s core constituencies in major urban centers.
After a brief recap of Haggard at his broad-grinned, megachurch apex, Pelosi tags along as the family moves from one “safe house” to another in Arizona, enduring a vagabond existence while Haggard takes classes, interviews for jobs and eventually becomes a traveling salesman. “We’re miserable,” he confesses, later adding, “I certainly understand that people can’t stand me.”
In one of the saddest moments, Haggard is drawn into a conversation — with no hope of making a sale — with a guy who recognizes him and is sort of tickled to have this pseudo-celebrity pay a visit. (Oddly, it’s a little bit like a key scene in the movie “The Wrestler.”) Nowhere to be found, meanwhile, is any suggestion that Haggard’s misconduct might stem from a failing on the part of the defrocked minister or his Stepford wife, Gayle, to accept or acknowledge his true nature.
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.
Those who will never understand the culture that bred Haggard will forever see him as just another discredited preacher — an easy punchline for “The Daily Show” and choice fodder for cable news, his confession less hilariously tearful than Jimmy Swaggart’s a generation earlier.
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.