A religion founded by a science-fiction writer with a fondness for yachting caps, Scientology may be recognized as a legitimate religion by our government, but by anyone else who watches HBO’s documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, it seems more like a cartoon of mendacity.
Former members tell stories of forced labor, removing children from their parents, compelling adherents to part with large sums of money only to be repaid with the revelation that our Earth is a “prison planet” overseen by the all-powerful galatic overlord Xenu, who sounds like a foe Jack Kirby might have dreamed up to battle the Fantastic Four. None of this makes Scientology sound like the most welcoming of religions, does it?
Yet this frequently jaw-dropping documentary by director Alex Gibney, drawn largely from the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, demonstrates vividly how a cult can spread among people searching for something greater in their lives, some advantage over others, some grand answer.
We know about the famous Scientologists, and John Travolta and Tom Cruise are shown here, in clips that present them in full glazed-eyed rapture over the genius of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But the value of the film is its interviews with less celestial humans, members who, once entering the kingdom of Hubbard and Xenu, attest to being reduced to scrubbing rust off the hulls of boats and eating insect-strewn rotting food to stoke their faith.
A few former believers tell Gibney’s cameras that Scientology eventually came to seem a scam, and no one seems scammier than Hubbard’s successor, David Miscavige. After Hubbard died in 1986, Miscavige, a second-in-command functionary with the fixed smile of a zealot harboring nasty secrets, launched what one observer says was nothing less than a “coup,” forming close ties with Cruise in particular. (It’s easy to see why: Miscavige looks and carries himself like a scrawny little brother of the movie star’s.)
It’s one thing to read about the grand ballroom rallies Miscavige and Cruise held to open the hearts and wallets of the faithful; it’s another to actually see footage of these spectacularly tacky events, tricked out in fascist backdrop imagery. You’d think a shrewd guy like Cruise would have realized he was being used as an extra in what looks like a Leni Riefenstahl rally film.
But this is one of the subtexts of Going Clear: that Scientology found some of its greatest, most public successes by aligning itself with the culture of celebrity, preying on the insecurities of actors and instilling in them a confidence that could overcome the mundane grind of auditions, rejections, and searching for the next film/TV project. That said, it’s still amazing to me that someone like Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) can so cheerfully submit to Gibney’s cameras that not until he was many years and many dollars into the process did he tumble to the belief that this religion was both failing him and doing some bad work in the world.
In the context of Gibney’s documentary, which at times threatens to get swallowed up in the loony-land it wants to analyze, it helps a great deal to have regular check-ins with Wright, a New Yorker writer who radiates the kind of calm rationality you’d expect from a man who usually roams magazine halls haunted by the spirit of William Shawn, a far more soothing presence than the excitable Hubbard. You believe Wright when he says he didn’t come to bury Scientology but to “understand it,” and his book — well worth reading even after you’ve seen this film — certainly bears that out.
But after a while, there’s not much to understand. Hubbard — whom his flock refer to by rapidly chanting his initials “LRH” and giving his portrait a stiff-armed salute — created what looks here like a religion-as-prison. His idea was that you would achieve solace and clarity (that’s what “going clear” means) by turning your will and your material goods over to a mythology that resists all rational interpretation. Some would say that’s one definition of religion in general; the fairer thing would be to say it’s one definition of a potential tragedy.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief premieres Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m. on HBO.