by Ken B.
While the label “religion of peace” is most often used in association with Islam, sometimes ironically, I have long argued that to call any organized religion one of peace is laughably naive and ignorant of history. However, what about new religions, belief systems which have sprung up in the past century or two, and aren’t thought of on the same terms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or other “established” faiths? Scientology is often grouped into the New Religion category, but as Alex Gibney’s startling Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief demonstrates, the group is more or less a multi-billion dollar corporation, moving worldwide, that doesn’t have to pay taxes because it wore down the IRS to the point of surrender. And while they haven’t drawn blood in their history, the damage Scientology’s administration has caused is massive and very, very real.
Going Clear follows a loose structure, moving from different types of history: personal and organizational, to form a semi-complete picture of the angles and times of Scientology that it feels necessary. While that can lead the 120 minute film to become scattershot and unevenly paced, Gibney often carries the movie through based on the pure intrigue and shock value of what he is able to depict – basically, all of my suspicions about Scientology are unambiguously confirmed, most disturbingly, how families are forced shun members who leave the church, how former members often find themselves stalked by representatives of the organization, and how critics of the group often find themselves harassed for their views (I’m screwed, aren’t I…?).
Based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, Going Clear draws most of its focus on demonstrating how extensively the Church of Scientology uses blackmailing and blind faith to keep its members at bay, and subsequently, to continue to donate. One interviewee points out that new Scientologists aren’t told the theological history that the system is founded on until they have moved up to the top levels – or “gone clear” – which distances it from traditional religions, in which everything is explained up front. Of course, it costs money to level up. This something that can be easily afforded by Scientology’s wealthier members, but recruitments often focus on taking advantage of young, vulnerable people, and so the organization maintains a strong presence in Los Angeles, where starving artists are likely to be found in droves if you know where to look.
Gibney mostly employs talking head interviews, the subjects of which range from journalists to former members – both celebrities and regular folks who were roped in. Wright’s book is subtitled Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, but Gibney drops the middle qualifier, indicative of a broad look at a wide swath of individuals. They seem pained when discussing their experiences, as the crushing weight of what they did and how controlled they were washes over them, a psychological trauma which stems from immense guilt. You can’t fake that. It comes in staunch juxtaposition to the garishly lit and gaudy rallies held by the incumbent chairman of the Church of Scientology, the eerily charismatic David Miscavige, with that footage further bounced off of details regarding the life of the religion’s founder, the wealthy and thoroughly eccentric sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. This mix of archival clips and new material creates an extensive tapestry, where events are contextualized in further history.
Scathingly indicting the leading figures of the group who are blissfully unaware, or just ignorant, of the primal and thoroughly corrupt tactics which keep their organization both feared and increasingly walled off from the “outside world”, Going Clear is remarkable in its gumption to stare in and remind us that even though the Church of Scientology has not engaged in a holy war, its destructive powers have intentionally torn families apart, knowingly ravaged people at a vulnerable time in their lives, and built a terrifying fortress of an empire on the results of those malicious acts. Gibney is clear in showing us that Scientologists are not bad people. They are simply seduced by promises of eternal abilities and spiritual fulfillment, and subsequently led into an antagonizing, aggressive organization. It’s never a shallow hit piece, but rather a thorough examination of a mysterious group which returns horror story after horror story, and continues to question what can be done. However, even in that non-editorialized style, Gibney never bores us, but continues to enlighten and worry the viewer as layers are continually, cautiously peeled back.