Directed by: Alex Gibney.
Written by: Alex Gibney based on the book by Lawrence Wright.
When it comes to religion, I am an atheist – but not one of those asshole atheists who want the whole world not to believe as well. My basic stance is this – you let me believe or not believe in anything I want to, and I’ll do the same for you. That extends to every religion – including Scientology. If you want to believe in Xenu and Thetans and all the rest, then go right ahead, I don’t care. Every religion would seem more than a little strange to people who have never heard the story before (think about for a second, and if you had no idea of the Christ story, would you believe it, if you heard for the first time as an adult – the same can be said for all religions, really). Where my tolerance ends for other people’s religions however is when they start to abuse their power, and hurt people. Alex Gibney’s documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, makes a persuasive case that Scientology is actually doing just that. They are abusing their tax exempt status, pressuring its members to give them more and more and more money, while paying its clergy next to nothing, and uses threats and intimidation to keep its members captive. The film uses testimony from many former members who recount their stories – many of them horrible – of how they were mistreated, how their children were mistreated, and how the religion tears families apart by forcing them to “disconnect” with what they consider to be “suppressive people” – even if that means your own family. It also assets that Scientology will do just about anything to silence and discredit their critics. In the wake of the film’s debut at Sundance, the Church came out swinging towards director Alex Gibney, the film itself, and the movie critics who reviewed the movie – saying among other things that the movie is biased because no one from the Church was interviewed, even though, of course, when asked by Gibney they refused.
Gibney has a skill for documentaries like these. Over the years, he has made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) about the famously crooked energy company. Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010) about Jack Abramoff, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer (2010), about the former Governor brought down by a prostitution scandal, Mea Maxima Culpa (2012) about clergy molestation in the Catholic Church, and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), about Julian Assange and his organization. (He has also, by the way, directed way more films – he is insanely prolific, but these are the ones that more closely resemble Going Clear). As in those films, I don’t think gets at a lot of “new” information here – the film is based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright (which I have not read), and piggybacks on a lot of what was in there, and other articles by Wright and others. If you’ve followed along with this story, you probably know a lot of this – but Gibney turns into one entertaining, enlightening, lively documentary.
The film stars, as anything with Scientology must, with its founder L. Ron Hubbard. Through a few videos of the few public interviews Hubbard gave, along with the diaries of his ex-wife, and the testimony of some ex-members who actually knew Hubbard, the film paints him as a troubled, perhaps mentally ill, and certainly paranoid man who turned some of things he had been playing at in sci-fi novels into the basis of a religion with his Dianetics books. Although the Church has a longstanding feud with psychology, many of its tenants sound very much like it – and the movie asserts that much of what Hubbard did was a way of trying to help himself and his own problems. Hubbard was charismatic enough to draw some other people along with him. He made a ton of money, and didn’t want to give any of it to the government, which started the long standing feud with the IRS – that only ended in the early 1990s, years after Hubbard died, when essentially the IRS gave up – tired of fighting the war, and the lawsuits. I wouldn’t say that the movie offers a sympathetic portrait of Hubbard – but it does go easier on what it sees as troubled man than it goes on the people who took over for him – notably David Miscavige – who has run the Church since Hubbard died. From the testimony of some of the men who worked alongside him for years, what comes across about him is how ruthless he can be. He got to be the head of the Church because of it, and has stayed there for decades because he’s willing to do what it takes.
The film is full of one damning interview after another. Paul Haggis, whose story made up much of Wright’s work, is probably in the movie the most. Between him, and the other former members, they lay out the different levels of Scientology – how you have to pay to keep moving up, how its only gradually revealed to you what the tenants of the religion are (when Haggis finally read about Xenu, he thought that perhaps it was an insanity test – meaning if you believed it, they threw you out). They talk about the infamous auditing process – and how information gleaned in those sessions may well be what keeps members in the Church. At one point, someone refers to John Travolta, one of Scientology’s biggest names, as a captive of the Church. The theory goes, if he leaves, than everything they know about him becomes public – and he doesn’t want that. If the movie’s most damning portrait is of Miscavige, than its second most damning must be of Tom Cruise, who in footage from Scientology events and interviews, comes off far worse than he ever has before.
The Church of Scientology denies almost everything in the movie, of course. They paint the people who spoke to Gibney – and Wright before him – as liars, criminals and perverts. They will refute specifics – like the search for Tom Cruise’s post-Nicole Kidman girlfriend – but don’t seem to dispute many of the more general things the movie is saying about the religions standard operating procedure. Those, they just don’t talk about.
Overall, Going Clear is an entertaining, fascinating documentary. Gibney may make a lot of films, but he knows what he is doing here, and while much of the film is talking heads and archival footage, he does do some interesting visual flourishes. What’s missing from the film though is, I think, a more human side of things. Gibney comes out swinging in Going Clear – he’s making an expose of Scientology and its sins, and he’s going to pack as much of those into the film as he possibly can. If you’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), his masterpiece that was loosely based on Scientology, you will see a lot in this film that seems familiar, because Anderson already dramatized it. What Anderson also did though was have sympathy for the people in The Cause (what he called it in the movie), and made it clear why people were attracted to it in the first place, and why they stayed for years. Going Clear doesn’t really do that. After watching the film, I feel I know a lot more about what the Church of Scientology has done over the years, but I still know very little about the religion itself – why people come to it, and why they stay. Any film – documentary or otherwise – has its limitations of course, and the narrower scope of Going Clear is necessary. But how much more interesting would the film be if I didn’t feel it was first and foremost a hit piece? Perhaps a hit piece on a organization who deserves it – but a hit piece just the same.