Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Three stars (out of four)
(HBO has been rerunning the documentary for those who missed Sunday’s premiere. The film will inevitably be released for home viewing, although no date has been announced.)
I’ve never been a member of the Church of Scientology. I’ve never been “audited.” I’ve never been compelled to part with large sums of money so I can move up “The Bridge.” I’ve never been intimidated or abused or harassed by disciples of that dubious religion.
Despite my lack of firsthand experience, for most of my life, I’ve been riveted, with a mixture of fear and fascination, by the sensational rumors that swirl around Scientology. So, of course, I couldn’t wait to see HBO’s documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”
In the late ’80s, my dad took the family on our first official sightseeing trip to Hollywood. Among the bizarre points of interest we encountered were friendly people armed with funny-looking gadgets, offering free “stress tests,” or E-Meter readings, to passersby.
In response to our questions, my father regaled us with tales of the mysterious religion/cult known as the Church of Scientology. During a career in advertising, he’d met several former members who recounted harrowing tales of harassment after “escaping” the church — bullets left in mailboxes, shady characters lurking in cars outside suburban houses, sinister acts that sounded like something from a movie.
Later, as an entertainment reporter, I had my own brief but strange encounter with Scientology.
The newspaper I worked for received a press release announcing an event at Willow Springs International Raceway featuring the Dianetics motorcycle racing team. I was dispatched to cover the event because several celebrities were expected to attend, including “King of Queens” star Leah Remini. (Remini has since become an outspoken critic of Scientology.)
Despite the fact that it was Saturday and I was sick and the raceway was no short distance from my home in Lancaster, I dutifully dragged myself to Rosamond to interview Remini and friends. When I arrived at the track, there were no celebrities to be found, only a cheery publicist who handed me a free copy of Dianetics and explained that Ms. Remini was stuck in traffic.
As the minutes ticked by with nary a recognizable Hollywood personality in sight, she suggested I interview some of the racers instead. Out of politeness, I agreed, listening to enthusiastic personal testimonies detailing how Scientology had helped these guys overcome problems, like conquering fear and tight curves on the racetrack.
After several hours passed, it became apparent that Leah Remini was never going to show up, despite the publicist’s insistence the actress was only a few minutes away. I began to wonder if the promise of her appearance was a lie from the very beginning.
As one church member after another was trotted out to recount to me the life-changing benefits of Scientology, I was overcome with the suspicion that the entire event had been staged simply for the purpose of proselytizing unsuspecting rookie journalists.
After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to make my excuses and break free, hightailing it back to the office with a story to tell my editor and the lingering sensation that I had only narrowly escaped this unexpected, vaguely creepy situation.
Maybe that’s why I found it easy to give credence to the bold, often horrifying allegations in “Going Clear.” Based on a book by Lawrence Wright, the documentary first created a stir in January at the Sundance Film Festival. After a limited theatrical release, it premiered Sunday on HBO to a viewership of 1.7 million. That’s the biggest audience for one of the network’s docs since 2006’s “When the Levees Broke,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.
The fact that most of the accusations in “Going Clear” cannot be corroborated, thanks largely to the Church of Scientology’s notorious secrecy, doesn’t make the film any less credible or shocking.
Veteran documentarian Alex Gibney has a way of quietly creeping up on his topic, saving the more astonishing revelations for the end of the film. It’s an insidiously clever approach. The film’s gradually escalating flow of revelations is calculated for maximum impact.
“Going Clear” begins predictably with a history of Scientology and its creator, science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Gibney’s portrait of Hubbard relies heavily on the recollections of the writer’s ex-wife, Sarah Northup, who claims her former spouse once kidnapped her child and kept the girl in a cage. Northup also recalls that Hubbard was obsessed with creating a religion so he could enjoy the profits tax-free.
Gibney paints a colorful picture of Hubbard that is so bizarre, it’s difficult to deny the man was anything but completely bonkers. It makes director Paul Thomas Anderson’s roman a clef “The Master” seem tame in comparison to the apparent reality.
If you’ve spent any time reading about or researching Scientology, there’s nothing terribly surprising about much of this information, or the details of the religion’s wackier tenets, including a creation myth involving an alien overlord named Xenu and extraterrestrial spirits that cling to human hosts, causing them psychological trauma.
“Going Clear” really starts kicking butt and taking names when Gibney delves into a series of face-to-face interviews with eight former high-level members of the church. On-camera appearances by present or past members are a rarity and these “talking heads” have a lot of damning things to say about the religion’s alleged history of abuse, physical violence, manipulation, blackmail, fraud and cult-like lack of transparency.
“Crash” director Paul Haggis recalls being innocently sucked into the church while beginning his screenwriting career, claiming that members are kept in the dark for years about Scientology’s absurd core philosophies.
A publicist who was once a respected member of Hubbard’s elite Sea Org operation and a friend of celebrity Scientologist John Travolta remembers undergoing weeks of church-mandated rehabilitation that involved imprisonment and forced labor. She was pregnant at the time.
Several former church officials admit to participating in lies, intimidation, cover-ups and blackmail using scandalous personal information culled during the intense auditing sessions members are encouraged to undergo.
The jaw-dropping highlight of the film comes when Gibney actually has the guts to call out two of Scientology’s most famous ambassadors — Travolta and Tom Cruise — for their complicity in the church’s corrupt practices.
The doc goes so far as to allege that Scientologists conspired to break up Cruise and ex-wife Nicole Kidman and entertainingly addresses some of the crazier rumors that surfaced shortly before Cruise’s infamous couch-jumping phase.
“Going Clear” also goes after Hubbard’s successor, Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, a charismatic figure of controversy whose alleged ruthless and paranoid tactics are credited with filling the church’s coffers even while depleting its membership.
If even a handful of the misdeeds described in “Going Clear” are true, then the Church of Scientology’s tax exempt status should be revoked immediately, as suggested in the film.
And we, as a society, should scrutinize this so-called religion with sharper eyes, instead of dismissing it as merely harmless and eccentric.