Be it from South Park or PTA’s The Master, most of us know a little something about Scientology. Documentarian Alex Gibney’s most recent expose got to grips with a certain now-infamous cyclist in The Armstrong Lie, now he takes us behind the scenes that L. Ron built. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief sets out to try to understand the billion-dollar organization that’s one part New Age religion, one part shell company, and one part dangerous cult.
For obvious reasons it’s the “dangerous cult” viewpoint that provides our entryway into Scientology, as presented in interviews with eight former members, including Paul Haggis, Oscar-winning director of Crash, and “Spanky” Taylor, who brought John Travolta into the fold. All of them had their reasons for getting involved with the church: Haggis reveals he did so out of relationship concerns while a bright-eyed Taylor dreamed of having “a positive effect on all mankind”. These segments are intercut with trippy visuals — violet-tinted black-and-white mashups illustrating the Scientology creation myth (it involves B-52 bombers and volcanoes) — and Gibney’s guiding voice-over. Going Clear shows how the fevered brainchild of a possibly deranged science fiction author became a billion-dollar industry, extolling a philosophy of “no enforced belief” on one hand and billion-year contracts of indentured servitude on the other.
The film is also an exploration of faith, of why people believe and what they’re willing to do — Lawrence Wright, the author of the book on which it’s based, is an expert in religious fundamentalism. Hubbard himself is a sonorous Cheshire cat off, monstrous yet “magnificent”, hunting in the Mediterranean for treasure caches from his past lives — and throwing people overboard — while his successor David Miscavige, is an intense, analogy-spouting snake oil salesman. Going Clear returns repeatedly to the image of the E-Meter, part of Scientology’s auditing process; it’s needle swinging back and forth. An auditor’s voice promises to “reduce the pain”, Travolta speaks of a “world without insanity”, and Tom Cruise mostly just laughs, wildly, as Mark Rathbun — once the church’s second-in-command — talks about blackmail files and dirty tricks (Travolta may have more than one thing in common with early Scientology pitch man Rock Hudson).
What the film keeps returning to, though, is the reasons, for joining and for leaving. For both Haggis and Taylor it came down to their kids. The latter may seem like a former Manson acolyte — shades of Squeaky Fromme — but her story is one disillusionment and sub-Saharan-style degradation. Ultimately Going Clear doesn’t offer anything hugely new beyond the specifics of their cases, but
finding it all in one place nevertheless makes for enthralling viewing.