Ted Haggard’s 2006 fall from grace was very public and very shocking.
As the senior pastor of Colorado Springs’ megachurch New Life and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard was one of conservative evangelicalism’s most prominent and recognizable public figures. When word came out that Haggard had used methamphetamines and had a relationship with a male prostitute, reactions ranged from astonished heartbreak to self-satisfied gloating.
After the scandal broke, Haggard stepped down from leadership and moved to Arizona with his family to begin a rehabilitation process. This is where documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi’s The Trials of Ted Haggard finds him.
Pelosi, the daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, previously covered Haggard in her film Friends of God. Haggard’s moral failings came to light after the film was complete, and were added as a post-script. Given Pelosi’s wry look at evangelicalism in Friends of God, one would expect little sympathy for Haggard in her newest film, especially given the swagger and self-certainty with which he was portrayed in Friends of God.
Amazingly, this is not the case. Haggard comes across as more of a tragic figure. Pelosi follows him as he goes through job interviews, shuffles around through a series of safe houses and cheap hotels, and tries to restore his life and reputation.
The surprise in this film is that Haggard is treated almost entirely sympathetically. It would have been easy for Pelosi to revel in the fall of a man whose politics she stands in opposition to, and whose worldview offends her sensibilities. Instead, Haggard is seen as a subject for commiseration. Gone is the brashness and cockiness she focused on in Friends of God. Instead, Haggard seems a humbled and broken man. He admits at one point that he and his family are miserable, and that he understands why much of the American public detests him. Whatever scorn one may have had for Haggard entering the film, it is hard to maintain when seeing how the scandal has affected him and his family.
What’s also striking about the documentary is Haggard’s raw honesty. He speaks with complete candor about his feelings on his treatment by the media, evangelical circles and public at large. While Haggard feels cast aside by the church, he places blame for his situation on no one but himself. He also shares with Pelosi the frustration he feels at still being a high profile media figure when he is trying to get on with his life in anonymity.
Overall, The Trials of Ted Haggard is a moving and compelling documentary. By refusing to vilify Haggard, Pelosi turns prevailing assumptions of their head. She shows the earnestness with which Haggard is trying to rebuild his life, and the shame he feels for the attention and disgrace brought upon his family. At the end of the film, Haggard no longer seems the galvanizing figurehead he once was, nor the object of ridicule he became. Rather, he emerges as what he has always been: tragically and wholly human.