Unless you’ve been without your Internet connection for the past couple of months, you’re aware of Alex Gibney’s documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. It premiered at Sundance in January and has become a hot topic on news blogs ever since. Gibney has directed some of the most thought provoking documentaries in the past decade, including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, and 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Turning his sights on the Church of Scientology, Gibney’s film focuses on the two men responsible for Scientology’s long term success: Founder L. Ron Hubbard and current leader of the church, David Miscavige. The film premieres on HBO Sunday, March 29th and will air on the network’s various channels throughout the week.
Based on the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, the movie features in- depth interviews with Wright and eight former members of the church. Among those interviewed are Academy Award winner Paul Haggis (Crash), who broke ties with the church in a very public fashion in 2009, and three men who were once a part of Miscavige’s inner circle. The stories the interviewees share are poignant and riveting. Scientology does not come across in a good light, something that the church is doing its best to counter with smear articles about Haggis and the rest of the people interviewed in the film. Representatives from the church could have come to the defense of their religion and its practices had they granted interviews with Gibney, but they refused.
The first half of the movie establishes who Hubbard was and how he went from being a prolific science fiction writer to creating Dianetics, a self-help phenomenon in 1950. As the film illustrates, Hubbard was prone to invention about his life and used his lies to gain the trust of people, one of whom was his second wife, Sara. When Hubbard met Sara, they were involved with the magical order, Ordo Templi Orientis, an occult the followed the teachings of Aleister Crowley. The two married, had a child and soon thereafter he wrote Dianetics, a philosophy with roots in many of his sci-fi short stories. Dianetics made Hubbard a rich man, until the fad died out and the books stopped selling. However, he knew there was a way to make more money. He’s quoted as saying, “The only way of making money (without the government taking it’s share) is to form a religion.”
Through Sara’s journal entries, we learn that Hubbard’s mental facilities weren’t all there. When she tried to leave him, Hubbard fled to Cuba with their daughter. Her contact was limited, and Hubbard would make phone calls where he claimed to have killed the child and place the blame on Sara. The next day he would call again and tell her that the child was fine. Eventually Sara regained custody of her daughter, but Hubbard had already moved on. To date, Scientologists don’t recognize Sara as a past wife of Hubbard’s.
Scientology grew out of Hubbard’s Dianetics ideas, adding a spiritual side to it. The film goes into details about Hubbard’s methods for measuring a person’s spiritual impediments and past life experiences with his patented e-meter. When you hear it described by the people interviewed, it’s kind of fascinating. Anyone desperate for a change and looking for answers might be susceptible to what Hubbard’s preachings, and millions were.
The first hour winds down and we learn more about Hubbard’s shady business practices, plus his secret origin of human souls. If you’ve seen the infamous “Trapped in a Closet” South Park episode that features Tom Cruise, then you know what higher level Scientologists believe.
Speaking of Mr. Cruise, he plays heavily into the second half of the documentary. This portion zeroes in on Miscavige and his lust for power and control. Miscavige joined the Church of Scientology as a boy and was handpicked by Hubbard to become an assistant and eventually take over leadership. It was through Miscavige’s guidance and hardball tactics (filing 50 lawsuits against the IRS) that Scientology was finally recognized as a non-profit by the IRS in the early 90s. Upon the IRS decision, Miscavige held a massive ceremony in the LA Sports Arena, declaring that “the war is over” with the IRS. They’d won.
Miscavige’s command of Scientology includes using Hollywood celebrities to promote the religion and lure new members into the religion. For a time, John Travolta was the most prominent spokesman for the church, but in the 21st Century, no one has been a bigger face for Scientology than Tom Cruise. Going Clear goes into great detail about Miscavige’s slimy tactics to pull Cruise back into the church after he started to move away from it in the 90s while married to Nicole Kidman. After Cruise and Kidman divorced, he became the poster boy for the organization, doing promotional videos and appearing on talk shows promoting it (who can forget his Today show interview attacking psychiatry?) After getting Cruise back into their fold, one could say that the actor has become more manic and his public image has been tarnished.
While the film goes into details about some of the church’s beliefs, it does not cover everything. The church’s stance on psychiatry, homosexuality and drugs are merely touched upon. As the title suggests, the story is about its strong influence on the lives of its members and how much harm they do to people both physically and mentally. When a person decides to leave the church, they are excommunicated with their family and friends. Moreover, ex-members are harassed and they feel that their lives are threatened by fanatical people who exhibit behavior reminiscent of a cult.
The film is so well done that it stirred an interest in me to find out more about the strangeness of Scientology. Mind you, I’m a Christian and will not be changing my religion. However, the best documentaries not only inform but inspire its viewers to dig deeper and find out more about the film’s subject matter. Going Clear does just that.