Home > Film, Religion, Reviews > Film Review – Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Film Review – Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015; Directed by Alex Gibney)

Mormonism is frequently called the American religion, founded as it was within the geographical and historical bounds of the United States, playing an important role in the country’s epic narrative of westward expansion, and reflecting vital, stereotypically conservative American values of self-reliance, independence, tightly-knit community, and both an embrace and a distrust of modernity and progress. But the LDS Church is also typified by more ambivalent American characteristics too: greed and capitalist consolidation, racial, sexual, and minority discrimination, and the exploitation of the credulity of the masses by a shady and manipulative elite. Some of these characteristics have persisted into our age, but they perhaps define America in the 19th Century, when Mormonism was founded, even more.

As Mormonism was to 19th-century America, Scientology is to 20th-century and early 21st-century America. The defining essentials of the last six decades of American life are encoded in the DNA of the Church of Scientology: self-help mania, outlandish but unwaveringly certain monetized faith, saturating Hollywood glitz, institutional corruption, aggressive litigiousness and public pressure, the continuity of male privilege, capitalist predation, corporations reaping massive profits while evading taxation and legal consequences for their misdeeds, and an insistent drumbeat of creeping authoritarianism. But in Scientology, these American obsessions, anxieties, and foibles (not always inherently sinister in isolation) are heated together to a rolling boiling point. Scientology is symptomatic of American overreach whipped up to a fever pitch, its power and madness exploding into baroque grandiosity. The particulars of its practices, tenets and methods of control and abuse ought be wholly inconceivable, but in the contemporary United States, they are just believable.

Based on Lawrence Wright’s eye-opening book of the same name delving deep into the strange and alarming world of the Church of Scientology, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief chronicles the bizarre origins, fitful rise, and insidious operations of the world’s most successful pyramid-scheme spiritual cult. A two-hour documentary film must necessarily elide some details, and the surest loser in this process is the eccentric, mind-boggling life of Scientology’s deified founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

A hack science-fiction writer, U.S. Navy veteran, self-styled explorer, inventor, and philosopher, and all-around larger-than-life nutbar, Hubbard built the Church of Scientology on the basis of his popular 1952 self-improvement book Dianetics. Dubbed, among other things, “a lunatic revision of Freudian psychology”, Dianetics spun off into touring seminars conducted by Hubbard which carried the whiff of charlatanesque revival-tent preaching and eventually into a desultory sea voyage with a cadre of true believers who later formed the core of the SeaOrg, later the elite operatives of the Church of Scientology.

Hubbard was banned from various nations, denounced as a madman and a criminal and charged with fraud, his self-aggrandizing life story challenged and debunked at various turns. Scientology took on his instability and domineering nature, especially under his successor as the organization’s dictator, the imperially-minded David Miscavige, whose grandest triumph – the Church’s success in obtaining tax-exempt status from a harrassed IRS – was celebrated with a spectacular event straight out of Nero’s Rome or Riefenstahl’s Nuremberg. It also gained some prominent members and promoters among Hollywood’s glitterati, including Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, screen icon of the ’70s and ’90s John Travolta, and most famously megastar Tom Cruise.

Through intensive interviews, some with outside observers but many more with the growing legion of major apostates who have broken with the church in recent years, Gibney plumbs the dark depths of Scientology. It’s true, he raises a sceptical eyebrow or two about the legendary, pulpy “space opera” mythology underlying Scientological belief (galactic overlords, space planes, genocidal volcano nuclear bombings, Thetans, all that jazz) and the quasi-scientific mumbo-jumbo revolving around the important practice of auditing (basically confessional talking therapy, only while holding electrical cans connected to a mysterious “e-meter”). Scientology is plenty weird, but as religions go, it hardly holds a monopoly on bizarre beliefs, doctrines or practices.

But Gibney is much more interested in and adept at ferreting out the abuses and corruption of unbeholden and secretive institutions. The Church of Scientology is an almost cartoonishly nasty hothouse for outrageous misconduct, if the accounts of former members can be believed (and the furious, threatening PR arm of the Church will aggressively contend that they cannot be). Their lionized palace guard, the SeaOrg, are paid so little and subjected to such menial and overwhelming labour that their plight could be characterized without hyperbole as slavery. Lavish luxuries and services are provided for star spokesman Cruise and his bosom buddy Chairman Miscavige, mostly by the indentured SeaOrg servants.

Members both fiercely loyal and potentially disloyal are subjected to squalid living conditions and sustained psychological and even physical abuse by Church authorities for the murkiest of reasons. Doubting Thomases (and especially those who become fugitives from the regime) are threatened with blackmail on the basis of the voluminous information culled from their auditing sessions (which they are told are confidential but are nothing like it, when it comes down to it). Public harrassment tactics and crushing lawsuits await former members who defy the Church, citizens who criticize it publically, and authorities who dare to attempt to crack down on it.

Whatever one might say about the flaws and excesses of Mormonism, it remains an undeniable religion. Joseph Smith was a huckster con artist whose shamelessness was matched only by his personal magnetism, but his heirs laboured hard over a century and a half to legitimize his conniving scam of a religion and integrate a toned-down version of it into the conventional mainstream of American life. Scientology can only barely be bothered to maintain the merest veneer of a religious institution as cover for the acquisitive oppression inflicted upon its members by the Church elite. Scientology was a relatively transparent and intermittently openly cynical mechanism for Hubbard to make money off of suckers, and others have inherited his position as beneficiary of copious member fees and donations without reforming the Church’s operations in the direction of general, socially-acceptable benevolence. Scientology as it emerges in Going Clear is a manifestation of some of the darkest spaces of the American id, and there’s little in this fascinating but troubling film to suggest that it will ever be anything more.

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Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:07 am
  2. April 24, 2016 at 4:45 pm

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