Writer: Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright (book)
Cast: Paul Haggis, Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, Jason Beghe, Marty Rathbun, Mike Rinder, Lawrence Wright (interviewees), L. Ron Hubbard, Tom Cruise, David Miscavige, John Travolta (archive footage)
Running time: 119mins
The lowdown: Incendiary account of the Church of Scientology’s fascinating and disturbing history from Alex Gibney, who previously wrestled with the Catholic Church in Mea Maxima Culpa. Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology’s most famous members, are featured though predictably declined interviews. But, the talking heads, including Oscar winner Paul Haggis, suggest a dark centre in the superstar religion far from Travolta’s claim that “joy is the operative concept”. Essential viewing.
The full verdict: Director Alex Gibney may have dropped “Hollywood” from the title in his adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief”, but Tinseltown looms large in his film.
The organisation’s current Chairman of the Board, David Miscavige, understands the cachet of having Tom Cruise flying the flag and pampers him with fabulous gifts.
Among the many startling allegations in Wright’s book and illustrated in the film is Miscavige authorising the grooming of Scientologist actress Nazanin Boniadi as Cruise’s new girlfriend. And her subsequent punishment when the pair break-up.
This is after approving a wiretap be put on Nicole Kidman’s phone when he feared she was leading Cruise away from the Church. And blackmailing the IRS with thousands of lawsuits to force the tax man into awarding Scientology religious (i.e, tax exempt) status.
There have been Scientology documentaries in the past, including an episode of Panorama in which reporter John Sweeney had a frustrated meltdown when interviewing spokesperson Tommy Davis. And Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an unofficial biopic of the organisation.
But, Going Clear stands as the definitive account, until another scandal forces an update.
“Going Clear” is Scientology speak for purging all engrams, painful memories (including those from past lives) preventing humankind from reaching its potential. But by the final credits, what is clear is how Scientology still haunts the lives and minds of ex-members.
Including actor Jason Beghe and high ranking Scientologists turned whistleblowers, Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder, amongst the interviewees featured.
Presenting astonishing footage from Scientology galas, archive film and audio recordings of founder L. Ron Hubbard, plus troubling recollections from numerous interviews, the wealth of information packed into the two hour runtime is incredible.
Early scenes with Paul Haggis, Rathbun, Rinder and others lay out the appeal of the Church’s promise to change your life. Primarily through “auditing”, a kind of past life regression therapy that lets you purge those engrams.
“Engrams”, “auditing” and “going clear” are all Hubbard concepts. A pulp fiction sci-fi writer (whose Scientology concepts crop up in early magazine stories), Hubbard is presented as a fabulist whose own account of his naval escapades in WW2 bares scant resemblance to official records.
He made his first fortune from the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, whose concepts form the fundamentals of Scientology. Happiness and spiritual fulfillment (and superpowers) await those who sign up (for fees that can run into the hundreds of thousands, this being a pay-as-you-go religion).
The founder is also portrayed as a violent paranoiac, who kidnapped his daughter and tortured his wife with stories that he’d chopped her up. Wright’s book also describes how he let another wife go to jail for a massive espionage operation he initiated against the Church’s enemies (“fair game” in Hubbard speak). One of the record breaking number of works he penned was entitled “How To Save Your Marriage”.
Gibney (assisted by reportedly 160 lawyers) then focusses on myriad abuse claims made by former members, spanning decades.
Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor was a member of the “Sea Organization”, Scientology’s clergy that requires signing a billion year contract to join. Working at the Celebrity Center as John Travolta’s spiritual assistant, the pregnant Taylor was assigned to slave labour and food scraps after complaining her boss was denied medical treatment.
Sea Org members receive 50 cents an hour and spiritual work includes pimping Tom Cruise’s cars and decking out his house with bleeding edge AV equipment.
They have also been, regardless of rank, subjected to mental and physical torment. Rathbun and Rinder refer to “the Hole”, an ant-infested prefab office on Gold Base, the main Scientology compound, where Miscavige imprisoned those accused essentially of thought-crime.
Through archive footage and interviews, Miscavige emerges as a tyrannical, paranoid control freak in Hubbard’s image, allegedly amusing himself reading the confidential audit reports of celebrities. One reason posited for why apparent good-egg John Travolta remains in the Church despite the abuse claims is due to dirt on him they could dump into the public domain.
And leaving would mean severing all ties with family and friends, the Church ordering “disconnects” from “suppressive persons” (basically anyone criticising the organisation).
Haggis describes the moment he was told Scientology’s long hidden creation myth – a sci-fi epic involving intergalactic overlords and aliens dumped in volcanoes on Earth who became spirits that infected us – and believing it a test to see if he was insane.
But, Gibney resists lampooning the fantastical yarn; everyone has the right to believe in fairy tales. What is done in the Church’s name, that “prison of belief”, is what the director wants to address.
Unsurprisingly, Haggis, Rathbun and Rinder, along with Gibney and Wright and others, have been attacked by the Church for their involvement in the film, and are the subject of websites and online videos discrediting them and their allegations. But, the sheer consistency of damning claims against Scientology requires a considered point-by-point rebuttal, rather than shrill condemnation, if its image is to be rehabilitated.
Or an admission that this behaviour, more akin to a cult than a religion, is true and they action a radical change of structure and personnel.
Miscavige, Travolta and Cruise declined requests to be interviewed.
An amusing postscript is that critics who praised Going Clear have been targeted with emails demanding statements by the Church be published as counter arguments to “half-baked lies”.
Putting out fire with gasoline is a phrase that comes to mind…