The word “cult” conjures up images borne out of popular fiction and historical fact– fanatical believers quietly sequestered in the wilderness, performing menial tasks while garbed in strange unitards, awaiting a personal Armageddon. Alex Gibney’s newest HBO documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” reveals a far more grim reality– modern men and women bound in body and mind to a subversive social juggernaut, The Church of Scientology.
The existence of Scientology and its checkered reputation as an institution is not breaking news. In fact, Gibney’s documentary seems curiously non-prescient as ‘The Church’ has been increasing in strength since its inception in the 1950s. It almost begs the question “why now?” though the answer lies somewhere in the unsettling revelations the documentary serves up.
Mild torture. Child abuse. Psychological trauma. Blackmail. Illegal surveillance. Tax evasion– The charges leveled against the organization are plentiful and delivered with much dramatic to-do. At times, the narrative feels overshadowed by dramatic scenes cut between the traditional talking heads of the interview subjects. These stitched-in moments are often historical reenactments of Scientology’s corpulent founder L. Ron Hubbard, “auditing” his followers.
Most of the information provided by Gibney’s documentary is preexisting public knowledge; the Church is founded on the writings of the prolific science-fiction author who is quoted by his second wife Sara Northrup as saying “the only way to make any real money is to have a religion.” Somewhere in-between this calculated cash-grab and the devotees is a narrative of an ancient alien civilization poisoning humankind with the souls of their dead.
Much of “Going Clear” focuses on the broader organization of Scientology engaging in acts of espionage against the American government, until the IRS acquiesced in 1993 and granted the organization ‘Tax Exempt’ status thus acknowledging it as a proper religious organization. This revelation is dealt alongside the personal testimony of Gibney’s subjects, many who are former Scientologists, each offering up a laundry list of wrongdoings the Church has perpetrated against them– emptied bank accounts, forced estrangement from family members and physical imprisonment at the Church of Scientology headquarters. The stories are unsettling and the pain of those once subjugated is almost palpable.
Then there are the Church’s ties to Hollywood, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Gibney’s work. The documentary chronicles the organization’s inroads to the entertainment industry vis-á-vis David Miscavage, the scarecrow-esque contemporary leader of the Church and his ties to the likes of John Travolta and Tom Cruise. It is intimated that Travolta has become a puppet of the Church by way of threatening to publicly reveal his homosexuality, whereas Cruise is a kind of royalty who has been provided with monetary rewards and a sexual concubine for his participation.
Perhaps more compelling is two-time Oscar winning writer/director Paul Haggis, who details his time as a Scientologist over a thirty-five year span. Haggis is queried by the filmmaker on his willingness to participate in a dangerous organization:
“We lock up a portion of our own mind.” he says. “We willingly put the cuffs on. We willingly avoid things that will cause us pain,” his earnest face pained by the statement.
“Going Clear” is a difficult work to criticize, because like so many of Gibney’s Documentaries (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “No End in Sight”) it is about subject matter that is dire to those involved. It is also undeniably important as advocacy journalism in bringing attention to a dangerous religious entity that continues to operate without oversight.
The Church of Scientology is the dark underbelly of the American dream, deserving of this exposé, mediocre presentation notwithstanding.
“Going Clear” is currently available exclusively through HBO’s cable network, and digital on-demand service, HBO GO.