It’s not as if the world needed fresh proof that The Church Of Scientology is a corrupt and wacky place. That seems to be pretty much common knowledge by this point. However, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief (based on Lawrence Wright’s meticulously researched book) at least serves as an easy and definitive go-to doc for those who want to learn about all of Scientology’s nuttiness all at once. Mixing together interviews, archival L. Ron Hubbard footage, and quite a few sneakily shot videos that the church can’t be too thrilled about, Going Clear should be enough to drop the jaws those unfamiliar with Scientology’s nefarious ways even if there isn’t too much here that will shock those who have been paying attention. Granted, seeing all the info along with a few new surprises compiled into one place is definitely enough to cause heads to bang against walls. This is a pretty insane story after all.
Gibney’s doc opens with a little overview of L. Ron Hubbard’s personal history along with some testimonies of folks who signed up for the religion like Paul Haggis. As covered in South Park, Gibney weaves the tale of a science fiction author who became a best seller with a book of pop psychology and then became so infuriated when the scientific community refused to accept his genius that he turned it all into a religion. The painful bad sci-fi at the center of the story and the layers of payments and personal revelations required to get there are dutifully described. Backed by some perhaps overdone ominous music on the soundtrack, the whole thing plays out as very creepy and sad. By the time Gibney and Wright (who is featured prominently in the doc) start chatting about how Hubbard would fling Scientologists who he was unhappy with into the sea like a pirate during his years living on a yacht avoiding tax debt, it’s both sadly predictable and utterly horrifying.
Of course, the lunacy of L. Ron Hubbard is widely known. Where the film starts to get particularly interesting is Gibney’s depiction of Hubbard’s successor David Miscavige, who against all odds just might come off as an even more insane leader. Tales are spun about how Miscavige essentially strong-armed the IRS into anointing Scientology as a church for the sake of avoiding substantial tax debt. There’s also direct testimonial by some of his former high ranking Scientology sidekicks who speak of secret Scientology internment camps where misbehaviors are held captive for months and even years in dank infested cells where they are routinely psychologically tortured and beaten (often by Miscavige himself).
On the celebrity side of the spectrum, there’s talk of one of Tom Cruise’s Scientology-assigned girlfriends being forced to clean toilets with toothbrushes for failing to be a suitable companion. Discussions of how much private blackmail material the church carefully archives to keep their celebrity figureheads in check. And perhaps most disturbingly, there’s even footage of scientologists assigned to live across the street from a high-ranking defector to harass his family and report on his daily activities (which is somehow not illegal as it’s considered church business). The facts and tales pile up so quickly and surreally that the movie can often feel like a creepy campfire story that’s frighteningly real.
The entirety of Going Clear plays out with an aggressively dismissive tone that while not inappropriate, won’t do the film any favors for anyone interested in a perspective beyond Scientology-bashing. Certainly that’s an appropriate approach for the filmmaker to take given that there’s no denying the horrors and insanity of the church. The trouble is that such aggressive take down pieces are easy for Scientologists to shrug off as aggressive propaganda. Not to mention the fact that it would be very easy to make a similarly scathing and harsh portrayal of practically any religion, but because Scientology was created in the 20th Century by a science fiction author it’s the only one widely open to this criticism. There’s a big fuss in Being Clear about the Church being worth in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion, which is indeed outlandish. Yet that’s also the same amount of money that the Catholic Church has spent settling out of court child abuse cases alone. So perhaps there’s a bigger issue there about the money-suck of religion worth exploring. Regardless, Going Clear is a well-crafted, endlessly amusing, and often downright terrifying condemnation of Scientology that had to be made. It would be nice to think that the movie will somehow put a dent in the church’s power status, but given that Tom Cruise has a new Mission Impossible movie on the way, that seems unlikely. Sadly, there are many of folks getting their thetans checked right now and that won’t be changing anytime soon even if it’s all complete nonsense.