THE DOCUMENTARY "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"
WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Based on Lawrence Wright's investigation in the New Yorker and subsequent 2013 book, this film by Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") draws upon interviews with former high-ranking officials in the Church of Scientology, including Mark "Marty" Rathbun, second in command to chairman David Miscavige; Mike Rinder, longtime spokesman; and Tom De Vocht, a former construction manager. Sylvia "Spanky" Taylor, who worked at the Hollywood Celebrity Centre, and was a close friend of John Travolta's, is also interviewed at length. The centerpiece of the program: Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning film writer-director ("Crash"), who left the Church after 35 years.
The film charges that Scientology officials may have blackmailed Travolta, and secretly taped Nicole Kidman, former wife of Tom Cruise. (Cruise, Miscavige, Kidman and Travolta declined to be interviewed for this film.)
The title? A tenet of Scientology is that "body thetans," or souls from a 75-million-year-old civilization, infest babies at birth. They need to be excised, as do "engrams," or painful memories, via "auditing," which leads to a state of "clear." L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986, founded Scientology in 1953.
MY SAY "Going Clear" is a heat-seeking missile that doesn't take long to find the heat. After decades of well-documented controversy, and Wright's book as source material, heat in fact is unavoidable here. Not that Gibney tries hard to avoid it. Hubbard -- "LRH" -- is viewed as a deeply eccentric demagogue. As for his church -- a word "Going Clear" would like to enclose with air quotes every time it's mentioned -- Gibney and Wright essentially categorize it as one of the greatest tax dodges in U.S. history. After a long legal battle, the IRS finally surrendered in 1993, per "Clear," by designating Scientology a "church" and hence tax-exempt. Wright reasonably observes the IRS is "woefully" ill-equipped to figure out what a "church" is or is not. Meanwhile, he adds, the church is now worth billions.
The "prison" of the title? That's a common refrain throughout, too. In "Going Clear's" estimation, Scientology is pretty much like the Hotel California . . . Check in any time you like, but good luck checking out. The church brands ex-members as "suppressive persons," who are harassed, sued, or worse. "Clear" further indicates that the Hollywood stars who have converted to Scientology are either dupes with secrets to protect (Travolta) or "LRH" fellow travelers with similar paranoid delusions and questionable sanity (Cruise).
Miscavige is seen only in archival footage, mostly during gala events exhorting true believers to action. Otherwise, only a caricature emerges here, of a Napoleonic martinet with violent tendencies.
As indictments go, "Going Clear" is relentless and effective. But fair and balanced? That's another question -- or maybe that's an issue. The edifice of "Going Clear" is largely built on the testament of former top officials, who speak of their imprisonment in something called the "Hole," where Miscavige beat them or forced them to play musical chairs, to "Bohemian Rhapsody" no less.
It's all so bizarre that you forget these men were once Miscavige enforcers themselves, and true believers who also persecuted "suppressives" and banished body thetans. Their repentance seems sincere, but you're still left to wonder what drew them to Scientology in the first place, and why they finally left. The church's official statement on the documentary calls them "admitted liars [who] cannot be trusted, and no statements they make can be trusted."
In fact, your best tour guide through this Kafkaesque world is Wright himself. He's calm, measured and seemingly more intent on understanding than condemning.
If only the film based on his book embraced a little more of that spirit.