Having read Lawrence Wright‘s bestseller Going Clear before seeing Alex Gibney‘s documentary adaptation, I was well-versed in much of what this film covers with regards to the “Church” of Scientology. The book is dense with the craziest shit about founder L. Ron Hubbard and the operation of his religion and the zealots that surrounded him and took over after his death in 1986. The book focused heavily on the journey of Oscar winning screenwriter-director Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale) through the ranks of the church as he attempted to go “up the bridge” to the highest levels, covering nearly 35 years. His resignation letter hit like a ton of bricks and really brought to light many grievances that had been trickling out from ex-church members without much in the way of corroboration since the church had so far been able to silence those who left through extreme intimidation tactics. Even armed with all of this knowledge, seeing this story play out on screen did nothing more than seal my perception that Scientology is a bigoted, dangerous enslaving cult.
Gibney’‘s film is incredibly well-crafted like the rest of his films. He fleshes out Wright‘s story by bringing a long list of extremely high ranking former – Scientologists, among them are Haggis, former Executive Director of the Office of Special Affairs Mike Rinder, former Inspector General of the Religious Technology Center Marty Rathbun, former SeaOrg executive Tom Devocht, handler for John Travolta, Spanky Taylor and actor Jason Beghe (check out his video describing his life in Scientology). Wright also appears filling in gaps. This is a veritable who’s who of ex-Scientologists and each of their stories are incredibly compelling and really sad in so many ways. Many of them spent decades in the church and you can see the pain it has caused them and still causing them as they are routinely harassed by members of the church and private investigators that are hired by the church.
Funny enough, the film doesn’t concentrate a ton of time on L. Ron Hubbard himself. Sure, there is enough to give us a working knowledge of who he was and the evolution of his ideas into what later became Scientology. Of course Hubbard (who famously said, “You wanta make real money, you gotta start a religion”) and his legacy are never far away, but the main focus of the film is what happened with the church after he died and the direction it took under its new leader, David Miscavige. Miscavige is portrayed as a paranoiac who has gone to extreme measures to consolidate his power, doling out abuse in any way to keep his detractors, both real and perceived, in check. The people listed above corroborate these charges, they being the very reasons they left.
We get our requisite time on Tom Cruise‘s transition into the poster boy for the church and his special relationship with Miscavige, although the book goes into far more detail about how abusive Miscavige is even to someone like Cruise. His rise and the church’s win in the battle with the IRS over getting tax exemption status and the absurd way that they ended up getting it, really opened the flood gates of money and the church’s ability to snap up real estate all over the world adding to their coffers. But the more steam the church gained, the more Miscavige flew into rage and pushed out those who were closest to him.
This is a powerful story and one that is quite scary. The vigor that the members of the church, and I do use that term as loosely as one can, protect their beliefs is undying. If someone they know leaves the church, they completely disconnect from them and never talk to them again. They dedicate their lives, and some even sign a billion year contact with them, to the messages of Hubbard. They are fanatical in ways that echo the followers of Jim Jones, but go far beyond sans the suicide. The words of the former Scientologists are harrowing and Gibney does a great job of illustrating what they go through after leaving and why the followers of this “religion” are as cult-like as you’ll find (here’s a good example).
There will be blow back from this film, but it’s good to know that HBO lawyered up from the outset of making this movie in anticipation of Scientology trying in their typical fashion of shutting anything down that is critical of their beliefs. Gibney and company pull back the curtain and really expose Scientology for what it is – a quack religion that is built on the money of the members who sacrifice literally everything they have for the church. The active members are, by all intents and purposes, enslaved both physically and mentally and in a Hotel California kind of way – you can check out, but you can never leave. Like so many documentaries of late, this film plays out more like a thriller than a non-fiction film telling a story, which engages the viewer even more than the fascinating story unfolding over the two hour running time. The church likens itself to a humanitarian effort, that it is doing the work that no one else will or can, but the words of people like Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun quickly counter that notion. The charges in the film might be unbelievable without the cast of former members to flesh it all out, but due to the sheer absurdity of the beliefs of this particular cult, I can’t say that’s really the case. I think the most shocking things are that they were able to coerce the government into giving them tax exemption and that they get away with the culture of degradation and violence that appears to be rampant and unchecked.
This is an absolute must see film this year. I give HBO and Alex Gibney all the credit in the world for tackling this subject knowing there was going to be legal wranglings from the very beginning of its production. In addition, I urge you to read Lawrence’s book. It is able to give far greater detail about much of what is covered in the film.I dare you not to be intrigued.
Here’s the trailer: