Time and time again, documentaries often prove that truth is stranger than fiction. The most fertile subjects don’t need to be exaggerated because they’re compelling enough on their own, and the HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief knows this trope and leans into it. Similar to the South Park episode that plainly stated “this is what Scientologists actually believe“, Going Clear avoids hyperbole and simply traces the new religious movement’s roots and uncovers many long-held (and closely guarded) secrets, mainly through interviews with ex-members. There are utterly jaw-dropping moments throughout, as former Scientologists peel back the curtain behind a much-maligned, highly litigious, and cash-rich but congregation-poor “religion”.
The interviews that director Alex Gibney has scored prove to be Going Clear‘s biggest asset, as the past decade has seen a mass exodus of high-ranking Scientologists who’ve subsequently been eager to speak out against the abuses, hypocrisy and manipulation they witnessed (and, to be fair, were often perpetrators of). Gibney’s polished and cinematic style also prove to be boons, making the nearly two-hour runtime feel relatively fleet and allowing him to pack in a metric shit-ton of info and insight along the way. It’s a sobering, shocking and ultimately revealing look at a religion that seeks to control its members instead of enlightening them – you’ll never look at John Travolta or Tom Cruise the same way again.
The documentary begins with some talking head segments laid out over footage of Scientology’s “E-Meter” (a kind of stripped down lie detector test that “measures the weight of thoughts”, which is impossible as the movie points out). In quick order we’re introduced to some of the doc’s numerous subjects: there’s actor Jason Beghe, Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis, and former assistant to the stars (including John Travolta), Sylvia ‘Spanky’ Taylor. Having all been long-time members of the church who’ve since extricated themselves from it, they discuss the initial allure of Scientology’s promise to “make all your dreams come true” and their later disillusionment.
Scientology seems to have been sold as a power-of-positive-thought movement, with the practice of “auditing” using the E-Meter allowing for lingering bad thoughts and memories (even from past lives) to be purged from adherent’s bodies, allowing them to move forward in life with renewed purpose. Of course, going up each level costs increasingly more money, and the central tenets of the religion and its defining beliefs aren’t revealed to members until thousands of dollars are spent and they’re many years in. So, where any Christian, Muslim or Jew could easily describe their beliefs in under a minute, many Scientologists couldn’t do the same – they knew only that it was supposedly helping them (to “go clear”) and if they stopped they’d no longer be on “the bridge” of progress (an oft-used metaphor). So, the only way out is through, as Scientology itself increasingly builds a wall of fear, lies and threats around its members, resulting in the titular “prison of belief”.
The first section of the film details the founding of Scientology by writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 50’s. Based on Hubbard’s best-selling self-help novel Dianetics, Scientology quickly grew into a burgeoning new religious movement, particularly once Hubbard really started to monetize it and build up a war chest of funds. A rare filmed interview with Hubbard himself (or ‘LRH’ as devout scientologists refer to him) shows a captivating but conflicted man who seemingly built a religion out of unchecked hubris and spite for psychiatry and psychology (two fields that rejected Hubbard’s writings, leading Hubbard to weave a strongly anti-science stance throughout his new religion).
As Scientology became increasingly hounded by the U.S. government (for, among other things, an increasingly mounting tax bill), Hubbard took to the international waters with his “Sea Organization” (or Sea Org), made up of only the most devout members of Scientology – all of whom signed a BILLION year contract for the privilege of basically being Hubbard’s slave (they were paid pennies a day). Testimonials from former Sea Org members reveal an aging Hubbard that continued to try to consolidate power through bullying and fear (members would occasionally be thrown overboard or fed table scraps, while being strongly discouraged from procreation), all while he fled his enemies on the high seas.
If Hubbard was the imaginative, bloviating Father of Scientology, then his death in 1986 left a power vacuum that was filled with by the truly terrifying David Miscavige. A devout member since childhood, Miscavige is a man borne of the same outwardly friendly, grinning mold as fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise. Yet whereas Cruise’s charm reflects an “aw shucks” type of amiability that if occasionally forced at least feels warm, Miscavige seems to represent a kind of bottomless confidence and possibly malevolent nature that, when married with Scientology’s vast wealth and resources, creates a powerful man divorced from any lasting consequences.
Miscavige’s relentless bully tactics and strict hold on the reins of Scientology led the movement to be officially recognized as a religion in 1993, further cementing his leadership. This series of events are recounted in Going Clear through a series of filmed rallies that call to mind Nazi iconography and intense adoration from all the Scientologists in attendance. That victory paved the way for Scientology’s current status as a wealthy religion (their assets are currently estimated at over $3 billion) whose membership seems to be ever-dwindling (thought to currently be 50,000 people worldwide).
In its 3rd-act the revelations are piled on heavy and fast, as former Scientologists like Marty Rathbun (his blog is here, while the smear website against him is here) and Mike Rinder spill juicy secrets that are almost too incredible to believe. Rathbun (an all-purpose enforcer of sorts) recounts wiretaps of Nicole Kidman’s phones as he gathered dirt on her on the church’s request, while Rinder (a public relations expert and often the outward face of the religion) admits to outright lying to news agencies on behalf of Scientology.
Scientology’s retaliation against them was swift and severe, as under the church doctrine of “Fair Game” any and all methods (often of questionable legality) to discredit church naysayers can and will be used. Those that speak out against the church are labelled a “suppressive person” (or SP) and their friends and family still within the church are encouraged/forced to “disconnect” from the SP, essentially tearing friendships and families asunder in the process. This tactic reveals itself in a variety of heartbreaking ways throughout Going Clear, as those that leave are made to be pariahs by those that remain.
It’s all incredibly fascinating and is laid out in a way that builds to some explosive reveals. As mentioned, some of what’s discovered is almost too outlandish to be true (like the central story of Lord Xenu and his banishment of Thetans to the planet Earth billions of years ago), but it ostensibly is if all the subjects are to be believed. Of course, Going Clear is also one-sided as most current members of the church refused to speak with Gibney’s cameras (some lower-level members were put forth in a token effort from Scientology, but of course big names like Travolta, Cruise and Miscavige all declined to be interviewed). That natural bias doesn’t detract from what’s still a gripping and chilling examination of the nature of belief, and the slippery slope its adherents can fall down in the pursuit of a higher power.
Like a bucket of cold water over the head, Going Clear is a sobering and clear-eyed look at a new religious movement and its increasing fractured inner workings. Gibney’s refined style yields increasing dividends and Going Clear combines frank discussion with gallows humour (actor Beghe is a riot) and some true emotional stakes (as ex-believers are “disconnected” from loved ones) to create a compelling narrative about a science fiction writer and the sprawling cult that sprung from his fevered typewriter.
Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief (2015)
Director: Alex Gibney
Runtime: 119 minutes