For all the brave and insightful exposes that have been written about the Church of Scientology, an aura of impenetrable mystery remains. Is it a religion? A cult? A useful form of therapy? A dangerous form of mind control? A powerful global corporation? A borderline illegal mob? Maybe all of the above. In recent years, Scientology members have been leaving the Church with greater frequency, and many of its secrets have been spilled. Yet the revelations have only given rise to further questions. How, for instance, could someone as seemingly shrewd, worldly and compassionate as the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis have become enmeshed in its web? How did Scientology get so cult-like in the first place? And what about Tom Cruise and John Travolta? Are they die-hard converts or, in fact, celebrity hostages?
The extraordinary thing about Alex Gibney’s new documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, is that it does more than address these questions; it offers substantive answers. Based on the 2013 book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, the movie goes deep into the mystery, fascination, and – yes – the horror of Scientology, and since the human stakes are so high, the documentary has the scary intensity of a thriller. You might have to go back to Darth Vader’s first appearance in Star Wars to see an entrance as mesmerisingly ominous as the one made by David Miscavige, the group’s current leader, in an overwhelmingly dramatic piece of footage shot at a world Scientology conference. On the surface, Miscavige appears totally innocuous, which of course only makes him appear more like the ultimate sinister white-collar villain. There is something about the subject of power that unleashes Gibney as a filmmaker, as his films on Enron and Wikileaks have revealed. Going Clear unpeels Scientology layer by layer via testimony from former high-level Church officials who have never spoken up before. The result is the most exciting – and disturbing – work of cinematic non-fiction in a long time.
Behind the curtain
Working with rare footage, Gibney burrows into the enigma of Scientology’s founder, L Ron Hubbard, capturing glints of delusion and megalomania. Hubbard‘s rise began in the 1930s, and he quickly became an astoundingly prolific science-fiction writer. But then in 1950 he published Dianetics, the perpetual bestseller in which he helped invent the principles of the therapeutic ‘self-help’ books that grew hugely popular by the 1970s. In Scientology, he wrapped these ideas around a theological core of interplanetary gibberish that could have come straight out of one his pulp novels. Going Clear captures how Hubbard fused reality, fantasy and the pursuit of enlightenment in a way that, according to the film’s witnesses, expressed his own highly unstable and even violent nature – at one point Gibney shows how Hubbard even told his wife that one of their children had died, just to manipulate her. Hubbard wound up a sea-faring outlaw on the run from US tax officials, and in Going Clear he emerges as a broken dictator who founded a religion based on control because he was so desperate to control his own demons.
Hubbard constructed Scientology around a ritual known as the 'audit', which is like a conventional therapy session fused with a Catholic confession and a visit to Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984. A member sits down and digs into their secrets and private traumas, as the auditor asks questions and takes notes, recording the subject’s responses on an ‘E-meter’, a gadget invented by Hubbard. Haggis, a Scientologist for 35 years before his highly publicised break with the Church in 2009, tells us how incredibly good an audit session could make him feel, as if he’d purged himself of all his toxins. Gibney suggests Hubbard’s method of healing was really just a superficial take on Freudian therapy, a comparison that Hubbard scorned – though only after his techniques had been rejected as rubbish by legitimate psychiatrists. Going Clear, however, suggests a dramatic difference between auditing and traditional therapy: it claims that the Church of Scientology holds on to the notes from the sessions and uses them to blackmail its members into staying. According to the film, this is a major reason why Travolta has remained a Scientologist. As for Cruise, he’s portrayed – especially in one astounding clip Gibney has uncovered of the actor’s birthday celebration aboard a Scientology ship – as a clueless ‘true believer’, blind to much of what goes on within the Church, his loyalty to Scientology stoked and manipulated by his friendship with Miscavige.
The perils of power
As well as friends there are enemies, and Scientology’s foes are sometimes vast, like the US Internal Revenue Service. In one of the film’s most chilling episodes, the IRS appears ready to rule that Scientology isn’t a religion (and would therefore have to pay tax), and Miscavige has thousands of the Church’s members sue individual officials of the agency. It is an outrageous manoeuvre, but it works: the IRS caves in and grants Scientology tax-exempt status. In presenting a case study like this one, Gibney proves a master of documentary narrative – he conjures fast-paced drama out of thorough reporting. His movie captures an ongoing cycle of seduction and bullying, fearmongering and profiteering, that appears to have turned Scientology into a hamster-wheel of greed.
Gibney interviews a handful of high-level Scientology officers who left the Church and are now willing to denounce it. Marty Rathbun, who spent years as Miscavige’s right-hand man, was at the very centre of the citadel, and his testimony has an unsettling authority. He alleges that Miscavige, in actions worthy of the Khmer Rouge, subjected his loyal officials to rituals of abuse, making them ‘confess’ to imagined crimes and assaulting them if they didn’t comply. The astounding thing is that when the victims were given the chance to exit this torture program, none of them did. They thought they deserved to be punished.
Going Clear makes you empathise with Scientology’s rank and file, who come off as victims of Church leaders’ eager advertising. Yet what’s most resonant about the film is that, like Scientology itself, it speaks to the tendencies of our age. The impulse to purge yourself of doubt and neurosis, the desire to seek out a leader who can save us – these are things that just about anyone can relate to. The twisted genius of L Ron Hubbard is that he figured out a way to define and exploit contemporary soul sickness. He was right about the disease. But Going Clear makes a powerful case that he came up with a cure that only made it worse.
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