In the HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, a former member of the Church of Scientology says she simply wants “the truth to be known.” Author Lawrence Wright, on whose book the documentary is based, says something similar: he never set out to write an exposé, but only wanted to understand what Scientology was all about. What he uncovered was truly bizarre, and damming.
Writer and director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) follows a mostly linear path through Scientology’s origins to its current status, explaining its core principles alongside details of its systemic abuses. Gibney interviews eight former members, many of whom were high-ranking officials within the organization for decades, like top lieutenants Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder. Wright himself also comments extensively on the history of Scientology, particularly regarding its larger-than-life founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
Most viewers will probably be at least tangentially familiar with Hubbard and his book Dianetics, as well as rumors of the church’s cult practices. But Going Clear skirts over some of the deeper investigations into the particulars of the faith, and instead spends a lot of time focusing on Scientology’s tax evasion practices, their habit of buying up real estate through their protected status all over the world, and the massive amounts of funding the church has amassed. (Even the Borgia Pope of the late 15th century would be agog at Scientology’s sinisterly masterful ways of extorting money and using intimidation to hoard literally billions of tax-free dollars).
Going Clear also broaches the subject of Scientology’s most famous members, like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, and their histories and relationships with the church over the years. Former members speak out to how the celebrities were always treated like gods, whereas the members of Scientology’s Sea Org group (who sign billion-year contracts of loyalty) are sent to prison camps and encouraged to get abortions.
Gibney’s approach is minimalistic. He weaves in archival footage, video clips, and photographs to illustrate some of the key components of what the interviewees are discussing, all tied together with a quiet, ethereal score with occasionally sinister overtones. It’s in no way manipulative, though — it merely matches the unsettling tales of mind control, human trafficking, and pervading culture of abuse as told by the the former members.
Through all of these revelations, two things become abundantly clear. One is that all of this has happened through a voluntary system, and it often takes something really heinous for adherent’s eyes to be opened. As Paul Haggis — one of the many former members who has chosen to speak out — said, “you don’t see it happening, and you justify it.” In Gibney’s presentation, Scientology styles itself as being about self-help, when really, it’s about preying on bank accounts and creating a system to funnel money into its coffers. The shock is not that it’s happening, it’s that people are still falling for it — willingly, and enthusiastically.
The other standout of the series is the current leader of the church, David Miscavige. Miscavige is a fascinating figure who was raised in Scientology under the tutelage of Hubbard, and who made a grab for power after Hubbard’s death (or “transition,” as Scientologists believe), making him the fascist dictator of his domain. His totalitarian rule is defined by espionage, paranoia, and attacks on anyone who dares speak out against the church. In one particularly haunting piece of archival footage, Miscavige stands alone in the center of a massive stage, with enormous torches burning behind him — all by his own design — as he speaks to cheering crowds. The allusions to historical megalomaniacs are beyond overt.
Going Clear is a one-sided telling of the Scientology experience, but that’s because no one in the church will speak about it. Still, Gibney’s occasional use of a nightmarish visual pastiche coupled with stories of former members is powerful, compelling, and often sad. Rathbun, Rinder, Haggis and others talk about wasted time and money, but also about lost connections to family and friends. Worst of all, they acknowledge the shame that they chose to be in that prison.
Gibney’s work is engrossing, eye-opening, and occasionally jaw-dropping, but it’s not perfect. Interstitials between some early segments feature a text summary that moves the timeline forward quickly, which is jarring, and the names and titles of those speaking are never repeated after they are introduced, which can make the impact of some of their statements harder to follow. Further, certain details of the narrative feel rushed, while others get a lot of specific attention. A great deal of time is spent, for instance, on the facts of Tom Cruise having a girlfriend picked out and prepped for him, but no mention is made at all to his marriage to Katie Holmes (and her well-planned escape from the church), or the troubling public disappearance of Miscavige’s wife Shelly since 2007.
Still, Going Clear is an engrossing documentary that uncovers a story far stranger than fiction, even (if possible) its own. Then again, perhaps the whole thing can be summed up succinctly by actor and former Scientologist Jason Beghe: “All Scientologists are full of shit.”
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief premieres Sunday, March 29th at 8 p.m. on HBO
You can read Matt Goldberg’s Sundance review of the documentary from a book-reader’s perspective here.