HBO Documentary Films
Running time: 119 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
The building you see in the photo above is the headquarters of the Church of Scientology of Los Angeles. Painted a glaring shade of periwinkle, with a blindingly bright, Las Vegas-style marquee out front, it is an unavoidable landmark along a busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard.
But before that, for nearly 50 years, it was Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, where I was born in 1972. Now, this is not how it looked when I (and several of my friends) entered this world. The building had a much more understated presence. But its glitzy transformation is an ideal representation of the church’s penchant for theatricality and self-aggrandizement, as well as the firm status it enjoys in Hollywood.
That status has been eroding somewhat in recent years, however, as evidenced by writer-director Alex Gibney’s documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” Several longtime, high-profile members have fled and come forward with shocking tales of brainwashing and abuse. They include Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning director of “Crash,” whose candor in a scathing 2011 New Yorker article inspired Lawrence Wright’s 2013 expose, which inspired Gibney’s film.
If you’ve read any of this, or followed Scientology with morbid fascination over the years like I have, or even seen quick clips of Tom Cruise chatting and laughing maniacally in promotional videos, you have an idea of what’s in store for you here. Gibney has proven that he’s notoriously thorough in films like “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005) and his Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), to the extent that watching them makes you feel as if you’re cramming for a final exam. While he doesn’t really uncover much that’s new in “Going Clear,” the way he’s collected and assembled testimonials, documents and archival footage creates a cumulative effect that’s chilling.
Watching decades-old clips of Scientology founder/pulp sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, with this fluffy, blonde hair, nautical attire, ascots and ever-present cigarettes makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s bold and brilliant “The Master” seem even more disquieting in retrospect. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman just nailed this enterprising and capricious figure. But Hubbard was also a charismatic leader — and he recognized the power of drawing celebrities into the fold to spread the word about his new religion. “Going Clear” goes into great detail about the involvement of its highest-profile members, Cruise and John Travolta, as well as the perks they’ve enjoyed over the years for serving as glamorous ambassadors to the masses.
But the most powerful recollections come from former members who aren’t movie stars, but rather regular folks who came looking for answers and got sucked into a way of life that makes no sense. Mark “Marty” Rathbun, a former senior executive who left the church in 2004, recalls how he helped facilitate the break-up of Cruise’s nearly decade-long marriage to Nicole Kidman because she supposedly was pulling Cruise away from the church. (Meanwhile, Rathbun’s wife, who’s not a Scientologist, has filed a lawsuit against the church charging harassment, some of which we see in a startling ambush scene.)
Mike Rinder, a longtime spokesman for the church who left in 2007, readily admits to lying in interviews and concealing information from the press. Rinder describes the dogged way in which the church targets and tracks journalists who dare scrutinize Scientology. And he reveals frightening details about a place known as “The Hole,” where members are sent for punishment for perceived transgressions. (Naturally, the church denies all these allegations. Just as telling is the list at the film’s end of Scientology higher-ups who refused to share their side, despite Gibney’s repeated requests.)
These people and many others may have reached various levels of “clear” during their time as devotees, but what’s so eye-opening is the clarity they have achieved in retrospect — the way they shake their heads in shame for fervently following a religion based on the notion that a galactic overlord named Xenu had frozen bodies dumped into volcanoes to thin the population. There’s some amusement, too, at some of the more ridiculous and over-the-top ways in which members celebrate their faith, from lavish stage spectacles with fascist overtones to a “We Are the World”-style music video for an insanely catchy 1990 tune called “We Stand Tall.” Just try to get this song our of your head — and please enjoy the high-quality production values.
But for all the meticulous investigative effort that went into making “Going Clear” the bombshell that it is, the film also features some curiously glaring omissions. Shelly Miscavige, wife of church leader David Miscavige, reportedly hasn’t been seen in public since 2006; not only is the mystery of her whereabouts never mentioned, neither is her name, period. (Gibney has said that he wanted to dig deep on a few topics rather than touch lightly on many, but this one seems like a biggie to leave out.) And speaking of wives, the name Katie Holmes is never mentioned, either, despite the strange personality transformation she underwent en route to becoming Cruise’s wife and Suri’s mother. (Holmes divorced Cruise in 2012 after nearly six years of marriage.)
Family, though, ultimately is what gives “Going Clear” its final emotional gut punch, as former members sadly recall relatives and loved ones “disconnecting” from them because the church deemed them “suppressive persons,” or “SPs.” (LRH’s church loves its abbreviation-heavy jargon.) For all the splashy revelations included here which will seem shocking to viewers who might not be in the know, these quiet reflections of loneliness carry the most power of all.