“Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief”
A Look Inside
Alex Gibney takes us into Scientology, one of the most controversial and secretive religions in the world in “Going Clear” as he explore what members are willing to do in the name of religion. The film touches on a wide range of aspects of the church from its origin, to an intimate portrait of the Church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard, to its recruiting practices, to present day practices by church officials.
About a third of the way into the film, the recorded voice of L. Ron Hubbard outlines a key part of Scientology doctrine involving a tyrannical galactic overlord named Xenu and the story sounds nothing like the pop-cultural punch line it’s become in recent years. Instead, it sounds like a fascinating and profoundly disturbing glimpse into the psyche of the man himself. Collaborating with author Lawrence Wright, on whose 2013 book this documentary is based, director Alex Gibney follows a chronology of the church, beginning with Hubbard’s origins as sci-fi pulp writer and world traveler, his development of Dianetics in the 1950s, and how his ostensible breakthrough in modern mental health slowly, and by design, metastasized into the legally protected, tax-exempt religion that exists today.
We see an overwhelming cache of official documents and footage that show much of the speculation and innuendo surrounding the church’s furtive operations. We watch as Hubbard chastises an interviewer for comparing Scientology to Freudian psychology. Included is a recent video of the church’s current master and commander, David Miscavige, perched on a Third Reich-style stage, announcing to an arena of followers that the organization’s war for tax-exempt status has been finally won. The film ties the material into a coherent framework that provides a concise, scholarly context within which Scientology can be understood as a real system of beliefs, with roots in a specific time and place. This is a focused examination beyond how it could be that a science-fiction writer invented a religion at all and to what actually draws people to it.
In looking at Scientology’s relationship to Hollywood, the focus is on the places of John Travolta and Tom Cruise within the church (I find it interesting that both of these men are constantly being hit with gay rumors). The film shows the actors as highly valuable assets to the church both financially and from a public-relations perspective. Of the two, it’s Cruise’s status as Scientology’s celebrity ambassador, however, that stands to be more permanently marred by the documentary’s assertions (that Cruise has allowed himself to become the international face of a religious organization responsible for documented mistreatment of its members). A fair amount of time is spent putting into perspective disparate pieces of information about Cruise’s involvement with the church that the public has already had glimpses of: Cruise’s close relationship to Miscavige; the church’s role in the dissolution of his marriage to Nicole Kidman; and a disturbing story involving actress Nazanin Boniadi, a young Scientologist who, the film convincingly claims, was groomed over a period time to be Cruise’s girlfriend and then abruptly discharged to cleaning bathrooms following an incident in which she offended Miscavige. Equally unsettling is the 2004 footage of Miscavige presenting Cruise with an award called the Freedom Medal of Valor during a grand ceremony celebrating Cruise’s work for the church. Over-produced and tacky, the official video shows Miscavige and Cruise embracing like fraternity brothers before Cruise delivers an acceptance speech and finally salutes a giant portrait of Hubbard whose hand is resting on large globe.
Juxtaposed against the film’s damning claims of Miscavige’s abuse of power and history of physical violence against particular church members, it’s the bizarreness of this last image that raises necessary questions: is Cruise aware of such incidents? If he’s aware at all, to what extent is he a willing beneficiary of Miscavige’s exploitation of church policies? Though the film fails to answer these questions, it very squarely implicates Cruise as the public figure with the most potential power to hold the church accountable for its abuses. It convincingly substantiates a special relationship between Cruise and Miscavige that’s all but impossible to justify in the context of a religion that’s known to force members into financial and emotional ruin under the guise of making the world a better place.
It is in its interweaving of the personal stories of top-ranking officials and otherwise hidden faces who have managed to get away from Scientology’s grip over the years that “Going Clear” is most powerful. It might have been enough to hear the darker parts of their journeys (how some were pushed to the brink of insanity, how families were torn apart), but many are given time to articulate what it was that the church offered to them as spiritual seekers. We see here the inherent contradictions between the public claims of Scientology as an applied philosophy and its actual practices and the film gives voice to these peoples’ stories by inserting them as recurring reference points throughout the film, from its opening credits to its closing shot.
Their stories vary but are unified by a search for purpose and meaning and an admirable desire to do away with insanity and war. Hana Eltringham Whitfield was recruited by Hubbard himself to become one of the church’s original Sea Org members, and this puts the faith at the heart of Scientology into perspective. Recounting the turning point in her decision to break from Hubbard’s charismatic influence after 19 years, Whitfield says, “I could not continue this game of Scientology without explaining away what he was doing. It got to be a way of believing.” Much more than just an exposé, the documentary penetrates the nature of faith to confront questions about why any of us
Gibney shows us the human faces behind scandal-making headlines. Unsurprisingly, “Going Clear” is weighted toward candid, impassioned interviews with ex-Scientologists who share their stories in the hope of keeping others from going through what they did.
Among the juiciest bits are onscreen comparisons showing how Hubbard refashioned bits of his pulp novels into his Scientology dogma; excerpts from the letters of Hubbard’s second wife, Sara Northrup Hollister (voiced in the film by actress Sherry Stringfield); and footage from Hubbard’s few TV interviews, in which it’s possible to see just how much his look and language informed the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”
Starting with witnesses recounting how they were first drawn to the church by its promises of success, happiness and the vanquishing of personal demons; the initial euphoria of the “auditing” process (by which members are taught to rid themselves of painful memories from their past, and their past lives); and their gradual realization, we get to many years and thousands of dollars later to learn that there is nothing there.
We have fascinating statistics that include the slave wages paid to Scientology staffers; the diminishing number of active church members (estimated now to be around 50,000); and the exponentially increasing worth of the organization’s vast global real-estate holdings (said to be around $3 billion).
This is a great film about the dangers of blind faith or, as the subtitle of “Going Clear” puts it, “the prison of belief”. This phenomenon is hardly unique to Scientology whose consequences are all too apparent in today’s headlines. For Scientologists, going clear refers to a coveted status awarded to those who have completed a certain level of auditing. But for the men and women on screen here, it means using their own voices and demanding to be heard.
You couldn’t call “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” entertaining, exactly, but it is absolutely riveting.
—Liz Braun, Toronto Sun
There is order and selection, of course – to say that this is storytelling is not to impugn its parts – but much of what he has to show you is remarkable in or out of this context.
—Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times
An indispensable general history of the enduringly controversial church.
—Tom Gliatto, People Magazine
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”… is at times jaw-dropping, scary, unnerving, even disturbingly funny.
—Dave Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle
Director Alex Gibney’s hauntingly effective “Going Clear…” suggests only trouble ahead for the frequently criticized and always strange Church of Scientology.
—Hank Stuever, Washington Post
If “Going Clear” were a Hollywood thriller, I’d complain that it’s too over-the-top. But this is real life, which is mind-blowing, and as a documentary, it’s disturbingly good.
—Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly