Film Review: Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief (dir by Alex Gibney)

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Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is one of the most genuinely creepy documentaries that I’ve ever seen.

Going Clear, which premiered on HBO earlier tonight, created a stir at Sundance earlier this year.  Based on a book by journalist Lawrence Wright and directed by veteran and award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, Going Clear is both a history and an expose of the notoriously secretive church of Scientology.  Featuring interviews with 8 former members of the church (including actor Jason Beghe and Crash director Paul Haggis), there’s a lot of information to be found in Going Clear but most reviews seem to concentrate on the picture that the documentary paints of two of Scientology’s top celebrity adherents, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

And yes, there is a lot of speculation and, in Cruise’s case, accusations about the two men to be found in Going Clear.  But, honestly, Going Clear is about a lot more than just celebrity gossip.  Ultimately, it’s a disturbing portrait of a cult that uses the facade of glamour to hide a culture of abuse, exploitation, and paranoia.  It’s easy to laugh at Scientology because, by this point, we all know about evil lord Xenu and we’ve all seen that South Park episode.  We’ve seen The Master, which featured Philip Seymour Hoffman as an almost likable charlatan.  Going Clear, however, makes a very convincing case that Scientology may be silly but it’s also nothing to laugh about.

The film opens with the story of L. Ron Hubbard, who is portrayed as being a pathological liar who channeled his need to tell stories into a prolific career as a pulp novelist.  We hear an intriguing story about Hubbard’s brief friendship with occultist and scientist Jack Parsons.  When Hubbard writes a self-help book called Dianetics, a mix of pseudo-science and pseudo-psychology, he launches the movement that will eventually become known as Scientology.

And, for the first 40 minutes of this film, it’s still easy to be rather dismissive of Hubbard.  When he’s seen in archival footage, he’s a ludicrous but deceptively non-threatening figure, a con artist who got lucky.  In fact, when he first appeared and started talking about his “beliefs,” my first reaction was to marvel at how perfectly Philip Seymour Hoffman captured Hubbard’s voice and mannerisms.

But, as Hubbard attracted more and more followers and became more and more powerful, it became apparent that Hubbard was much more than just a flamboyant con artist.  We hear about how he grew increasingly paranoid.  We hear about how schemed to destroy his enemies and just how easy it was to become one of those enemies.  We hear how he eventually retreated onto a boat where his followers obeyed his every whim.  Worst of all, we hear about how he kidnapped his youngest child and then taunted his wife by telling her (falsely) that he had the child killed and cut into little pieces.

Perhaps one of the creepiest scenes in the film is when Scientology’s second-in-command, David Miscavige, is seen announcing the 1987 death of L. Ron Hubbard.  Dressed in what looks like a military uniform and speaking in perhaps the smarmiest tones ever, Miscavige announces that Hubbard has gone on to another state of being and then salutes a rather ludicrous picture of Hubbard dressed like an admiral.  If Going Clear portrays Hubbard as being mentally ill, the portrait that emerges of Miscavige is far more disturbing.

Indeed, the film can be split into two parts.  If the first part is about Hubbard’s Scientology, the second part is about the organization under the direction of David Miscavige.  The majority of the people interviewed in the film were members under David Miscavige and all of them tell stories about a greedy and secretive organization that uses its tax-exempt status to essentially act outside the law.  Stories are told of mental mind games, physical abuse, and constant harassment.  In one of the documentary’s most haunting scenes, Sylvia Taylor (who was John Travolta’s former publicist) tells how she was forcefully separated from her baby and sent to work in a forced labor camp.

But, as disturbing as the interviews may be, the actual footage of David Miscavige himself is almost as unsettling.  Though Miscavige, Travolta, and Cruise all refused to be interviewed by the film, Going Clear is full of archival footage.  We see Miscavige speaking at a series of Nuremberg-style rallies and we listen as Miscavige give speeches that could just as easily pass for a Joel Osteen sermon.  When Miscavige announces that the IRS has recognized Scientology as a religion, he does so at a rally and finishes by reminding the huge and well-dressed crowd that their donations will now be tax-deductible. We see Scientology recruitment videos, which all feature clean-cut white kids with permanent and robotic smiles across their faces.   Much like the earlier footage of Hubbard, it would be silly if it wasn’t for what we know about the organization.

One reoccurring theme to be found in Going Clear is just how much Scientology values and exploits celebrity.  Yes, the film does explore Scientology’s relationship with both John Travolta and Tom Cruise.  The film goes so far as to portray Travolta as essentially being a prisoner of Scientology blackmail, a high-profile hostage who will never leave the church because the church knows too much about his private life.

And while it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Travolta, it’s far more difficult to feel sorry for Tom Cruise.  Before I saw Going Clear, I always assumed that Cruise was just another actor with a strange belief.   In Going Clear, however, Tom Cruise is portrayed as being a knowing participant in Scientology’s abuses.  As Scientology’s most famous member, Cruise is waited on hand-and-foot by adherents who, we’re told, make 30 cents an hour.

Much like David Miscavige, Cruise refused to be interviewed for the documentary but he’s ultimately undone by archival footage.  We watch Cruise salute both Miscavige and a portrait of Hubbard.  We watch him give a self-congratulatory speech that sounds just as smarmy as anything we’ve heard from Miscavige.  Perhaps worst of all, as far as Cruise’s credibility is concerned, we watch a video of Cruise vacantly laughing as he explains what Scientology means to him.

(What’s ironic, of course, is that for all the extra benefits that Cruise gets as a Scientologist, it’s pretty much destroyed his career.  Edge of Tomorrow was one of the best movies of 2014 but, at this point, who wants to spend two hours with a Scientologist?)

The film ends with a look at how Scientology deals with people who leave the church.  All 8 of the film’s interview subjects have chosen to leave the church and all 8 of them have been harassed and threatened as a result.  And, whenever one is tempted to laugh off the craziness of Scientology, they should remember the footage of several Scientologist thugs conducting a surveillance operation on the house and family of a former member.

A portrait of abuse, brainwashing, and greed, Going Clear is a documentary that everyone should see.

19 responses to “Film Review: Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief (dir by Alex Gibney)

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