The only reason the likes of the recent HBO documentary Going Clear have not been released before (or at least not with this large of a budget) is because it’s an endeavor that requires a certain amount of bravery. Its subject, the (secretive, abusive, and dare I say cult-like) “religious” organization The Church of Scientology, is infamous for its bullying tactics when counteracting its vocal critics, almost to the point where I’m nervous to praise a film that attacks it even on this site, the most inconsequential of all blogs. Almost. Going Clear took a lot of guts to make, just like it took a lot of guts to write the book it was based on and it took a lot of guts for former church members to speak out in its interviews. It has the feeling of a long time coming for a subject so flagrantly nefarious in the public eye, but it’s also completely understandable why it took so long for a major outlet to speak out against it in this way.
Directed by prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, Going Clear does an excellent job of gradually introducing the audience to the insane world of Scientology’s beliefs & practices the same way the organization is known to gradually accustom its own members. The film mimics the form of an “audit” (a combination of a therapy session & a taped confession), a practice that plays a major role in Scientology’s recruitment process. At first the ideas of discharging hurtful memories and basic meditation through audits sound like reasonable forms of therapy and personal improvement. Also, the organization’s basic goals of freeing the Earth from insanity & criminality seem fairly admirable on the surface. As the film digs deeper, however, it starts to reveal a much stranger set of promises: superpowers that allow members to “transcend all perameters” & “achieve godspeed”, scientific instruments that can weigh the mass of your thoughts, billion year contracts to “save the world” (through indentured servitude, of course), and the quest to “unhypnotize” man. That’s not even getting into the more out-there concepts of prison planets & galactic overlords. If Gibney had introduced these details in the opening minutes (much like if Scientology introduced them in their initial recruitment efforts) they’d feel somewhat unbelievable, but by the time you get to them in the film they feel both very real and very much terrifying.
One of the tactics Going Clear employs very well is allowing the founder of it subject, deceased sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, to speak for himself. Hubbard spent a large part of his adult life avoiding charges of tax fraud, so it is rare that you actually get to hear him talk about the monster he created. Footage from at least two separate interviews are assembled here to allow him to speak directly on Scientology’s core beliefs (as well as less savory topics like “the primitive races, including the white race”). As portrayed here, Hubbard was an abusive husband, a former Satanic occultist, a paranoid dissenter of traditional modes of mental health, and a prolific writer of pulp fiction. Initially, he conceived Scientology as a means of making money, quoted here telling his wife “The only way to make any real money is to have a religion”. A religion, of course, would afford Hubbard a tax exempt status that would allow him to hoard his earnings. As his personal health deteriorated, however, he began to believe his own teachings (concepts mostly cobbled together from the plots of pulp sci-fi novels he had written before his religious pursuit). To Hubbard’s credit, the modern monster that Scientology has become does not seem exactly like a devious, well-thought-out exploitation scheme, but rather the musings of a very sick man that were twisted even further after his death by power-hungry members of the church, especially the current leader David Miscavige.
This history lesson in this first half of Going Clear was much more interesting than what I would describe as the celebrity gossip second half. While explaining the basic teachings of the church, the film employs a fascinating type of visual collage that feels transcendent of its basic documentary format. Once the film delves into the modern era, which is mostly contingent on the involvement of Hollywood celebrities Tom Cruise & John Travolta, it loses a little steam as an unique work, depending mostly upon the church’s Dianetics recruitment videos for much of its visual charms. That’s not to say Tavolta & Cruise’s involvement are not inherently fascinating. When they first appear on the screen Travolta is dressed in soldier’s fatigues (on a movie set) and Cruise is wearing an oversized medallion (the “Freedom Medal of Valor”, as it were), two costume choices with enough bizarre energy on their own to make the millionaire weirdos’ presence interesting. It’s just that the back half of the film feels less special than the first, like it is something that anyone curious enough to watch a Scientology profile on YouTube could’ve encountered before.
As a whole, however, Going Clear is a fascinating look into the lives of people who have left the church as they look back upon the thetans, e-meters, out of body experiences, and Xenus that populated their troubled pasts. It may lose a little visual flair as it narrows its focus on Travolta & Cruise, but their inclusion is necessary as it calls into question the idea that as long as you give the church all of your money they can make anything possible. Is there an element of blackmail that maintains their involvement in Scientology or is does that “Next stop: infinity” slogan hold more weight than you would expect? Given the abusive, conniving practices of the church laid out here (not to mention basic laws of science & physics), it feels a lot more likely that it’s the former rather than the latter, but Scientology is such a strange, insular, shrouded entity that anything feels possible . . . as long as you give them all of your money.