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Alex Gibney has proven himself an able and engaging documentarian, bringing to light with films such as TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, and most recently THE ARMSTRONG LIE, the hubris, self-deception, and other foibles of human nature that allow people to commit crimes without ever quite admitting to themselves than a crime has occurred. With GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, he has tasked himself with bringing to the screen Lawrence Wright’s wide-ranging, eminently readable book of the same name about the origins, growth, and modern-day machinations behind the Church of Scientology.
It’s a daunting task. A film just about Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard could easily encompass the two-hour plus running time, from his fabricated military history, to his brush with Alistair Crowley, to holding the record for most books published (he worked so quickly that he typed his manuscripts on rolls of butcher paper in order the save the time it would take to swap out paper). In book and doc, he emerges as a man with a wounded psyche, and if the doc has a shortcoming, it’s in not delving into the origins of that wound. Self-doubts coupled with a desire for fame and fortune coalesced in the book Dianetics, and his self-help movement bloomed into a religion, both for tax purposes, and because, as Hubbard’s first wife recalled him saying, the only way to make big money is to found a religion.
Woven throughout are the recollections of ex-members of Hubbard’s church, including former high-ranking members confessing to the receiving and/or perpetrating a litany of physical and mental abuse, dirty tricks, and the extreme tactics of intimidation used to keep members in line, including voluntary imprisonment. Central to this is Paul Haggis, Oscar™-winning writer/director who was a member for 30 years until the Church’s policy on homosexuality caused him to question its other teachings, and to take off the blinders he had willingly worn for so long.
Haggis was part of the church’s program of actively recruiting people from show business, and using them as the face of Scientology. Haggis joined while still an unknown hopeful, unlike Tom Cruise, who joined after becoming famous, and as the film depicts, enjoyed financial and emotional perks the rank and file clergy, known as Sea Org, could never hope to attain.
In all cases, Gibney uses the witnesses involved to speak for themselves, sometimes weeping as they recall lives wasted, and family members told to disassociate from them. Cruise, too, speaks for himself, though only via church sanctioned videos designed to sell Scientology’s philosophy of achieving spiritual enlightenment. Intercut with the other information, Cruise comes across less as an evolved being as glib and not a little unhinged. The laughter has a shade of the maniacal, the ceremonies in which he takes part with David Miscavage, de facto head of the church, carefully choreographed pageants likened, and not without cause, to those of Hitler’s Nazi Party.
Yet there is more to Gibney’s film that mere expose. A book, no matter how meticulously researched and well-written can’t convey the same look of megalomania, or of self-realization that a few seconds of film can. Haggis, for example, never resorts to tears, but as he is explaining why he wanted to believe in Scientology, there is a palpable look of bemused sadness not just for the deception, but also for his collusion in it. He reflects, after all, on his first reaction to having the secret teachings of Scientology revealed to him, that he considered for a moment that it was a test of his sanity.
And this is the bedrock of Gibney’s film. The lengths that Scientology was and is willing to go to survive, including taking on the IRS and making that imposing institution blink, are disturbing. Its success even moreso, but Gibney is interested in more than another example of power corrupting those who wield it. That is an old and oft-told story. What sets this film apart is the examination of smart people who fall for con with all their heart, and why they cling to it after the sham should have become clear. It’s a superbly crafted, compassionate study of the state of mind that made them believe that acquiescing was their only ticket to eternity. In that, it asks the larger question of what constitutes a religion, what constitutes a cult, and, in an aside that should send the real shivers down our collective spine, why it is that the IRS, a group made up of lawyers and accountants, are the only entity with the legal authority to grant religious status to a group.