Over the years, there have been a number of books, exposés, newspaper and magazine stories, as well as documentaries about the Church of Scientology. Its practices are shady at best, its tactics are abusive and its members are brazen enough to believe themselves above the law.
Even its most bizarre aspects – the sci-fi history stuff with the aliens and the galactic "Overlord Xenu" – are no secret.
So what can a new documentary – even one by famed filmmaker Alex Gibney – reveal that we don't already know? Why showcase Scientology when it's all been said before?
These were the questions nagging at me as I sat down to watch the engrossing new documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The answer I received two hours later was – no pun intended – clarity.
Gibney, the documentarian behind dozens of films including Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In the House of God, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and The Armstrong Lie, pulls back to show us the big picture of Scientology, before zooming in to examine the lives it has harmed. Gibney has made a career out of examining the darkest corners of modern culture, the corruption and conspiracies, covering many who have escaped prosecution. Scientology is therefore a perfect target for his razor-sharp lens.
Going Clear kicks off with a history lesson. Everything traces back to L. Ron Hubbard, the prolific pulp fiction writer who dabbled in the occult — although like most aspects of Scientology, Hubbard's past is highly disputed.
There's the squeaky-clean Scientology version, in which he's a virtuous world traveler and expert on pretty much everything — and then there are the documents and records that tell of a con artist and cult leader capable of controlling his followers by force of personality.
Going Clear, which is based on the book by Lawrence Wright, paints Hubbard as an ambitious businessman who grew resentful of the American government's taxation. Eventually, Hubbard became obsessed with creating his own religion, because he believed it was the only way to get rich in a way that the government couldn't touch. If that sounds shamefully opportunistic... Well, Scientology appears to have been built on one outrageous idea after another.
A damning case is made, both against Scientology – exposing it as a scam of epic proportions – and the clever, resourceful man behind it who found ways to perpetuate his lies for decades to amass a fortune off the backs of his followers. For example, when world governments focused their attention on him and his increasing Scientology wealth in the late 60s, Hubbard left the U.S. and moved out to sea, aboard a small fleet of ships that sailed around the Mediterranean Sea for years.
Who does that?
Or consider, as the movie says, that Scientology is the only religion in the world that requires monetary payment before you can convert — and more money with every level of progress up its O.T. or "Operating Thetan" scale of personal growth. The movie reveals that it's at the "O.T. III" level that members are finally allowed to see Hubbard's "secret materials."
This is Hubbard's sci-fi fantasy that Earth was once an alien prison planet, where Overlord Xenu threw prisoners into volcanoes and detonated nuclear devices over them, trillions of years ago. It was a violent action that supposedly created negative "Thetans," which attach themselves to today's humans — that, naturally, only Scientology can help you shed.
Paul Haggis, the Hollywood writer and director behind Crash and Million Dollar Baby, says in the film that it was this nonsensical ancient history that caused him to leave Scientology. Haggis was a church member for 35 years who couldn't believe his eyes when he was shown the secret materials. Hubbard's handwritten pages have never been typed, and to this day, O.T. IIIs are only shown photocopied papers of his scribblings. Haggis says he initially believed it might have been a test of his own sanity.
Today, Scientology is lead by a zealot named David Miscavige, who took control after Hubbard's death. Miscavige has taken the Church to heights his mentor only dreamed of. He's so ballsy, that when faced with a struggle over Scientology's legal status as a non-taxable "religion" in the 90s, Miscavige declared open war on the IRS. He directed his followers to launch some 2,400 lawsuits against the IRS and its individual employees. Even more unbelievable is the fact that Scientology won, successfully intimidating the IRS and the FBI into submission.
How has such a dangerous, defiantly powerful organization been allowed to operate unchecked for more than 60 years? Good question.
One of Hubbard's most successful initiatives was a plan to attract celebrities as a means of legitimizing Scientology — an initiative carried on by his successor. Hubbard intended to use these famous converts as ambassadors, public faces of his new religion who could bring more new members on board. John Travolta was the first celebrity to sign on, but without a doubt, its biggest and most influential celebrity success is Tom Cruise.
Miscavige has made it his priority over the years to keep Cruise engaged in Scientology by lavishing him with gifts, parties and unending adulation. It's strongly suggested that Miscavige was directly responsible for ruining the marriage between Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who never fully joined her husband in Scientology. Miscavige's former right-hand man Marty Rathbun suggests that Cruise is complicit in the church's dirty practices and abuses. The film also insinuates that Travolta is aware of Scientology's ills and wants to leave, but he's basically a blackmailed "captive" who doesn't dare defect from a group that has so much dirt on him.
The film contains more than a dozen interviews with former members, as well as astonishing stock footage of over-the-top celebrations such as the gala staged for Miscavige's victory against the IRS. As more and more of these wild stories pile up, Going Clear becomes a scathing indictment that leaves no room for doubt about what Scientology really is. The big question the film asks without putting it into words is this — "Why do rational people fall for something that is so obviously evil?"
Miscavige is portrayed as a paranoid, manipulative man in love with power, who, according to the film, allegedly authorizes poisonings, theft, abuse, lawsuits, fraud, brainwashing, harassment, physical attacks, human trafficking, damage to personal property and blackmail on a regular basis. While much of what's presented in the film is based on first-person accounts without documented evidence, these stories are compelling. And Scientology's organized efforts to discredit and silence anyone who defects are well known.
There's so much more presented in Going Clear — endless shocking material that there simply isn't room to discuss here. The film's message is that Scientology should be dismantled, its leaders held responsible for their countless criminal activities. It's a powerful argument conveyed with excellence and attention to detail, that's guaranteed to illicit anger in viewers and leave them dumbfounded. Gibney has done his finest work yet, making the construction of an absorbing, game-changing documentary seem effortless.
The documentary is currently playing in limited theatrical release before premiering on HBO on March 29.