The Church of Scientology is a powerful organization, hard to defeat once you’ve become their enemy. Just ask the U.S. government. In the 1950s, L. Ron Hubbard’s group labeled itself a church and thus became tax-exempt. A lucrative trick and a decade later, Hubbard moved all the organization’s assets to what was now called The Church of Scientology in order to make sure as much money as possible stayed in Hubbard’s hands. In 1967, the government stripped Scientology of its tax exemption for obvious reasons. It stayed this way until 26 years later, when the IRS after years of being hit by one lawsuit after another finally settled with the organization, accepting Scientology as a religion and making it tax-exempt once again.
It’s like hearing the plot in a Marx Brothers movie, but it’s far from the only jaw-dropping scandal covered in one of director Alex Gibney’s most ambitious documentaries yet.
The weirdness begins with the story of how Scientology came about. In the 1940s, hack sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard came up with a self-help system called Dianetics; after releasing a book explaining how it worked, Hubbard turned his ideas (some of it Freud, some of it science fiction) into the foundation of what became Scientology. Hubbard knew that the way for him to make money off of his system is to get people hooked on a process where their ills can be cured over time, to “go clear”, if the patient surrenders herself to “auditing”, question-and-answer therapy. Hubbard ingeniously devised an environment where critical thinking is slowly defeated while the victim is made to believe that the Church is the only entity that can make you feel safe. If you truly believe in this, you will open your wallet.
Relevant to a wider audience
Making a movie about Scientology in Hollywood made Gibney fear repercussions, but he still thought it was a topic worth exploring, especially with co-producer Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book of the same title as inspiration. One of the most significant aspects of the book is the Hollywood connection and Gibney emphasizes it without making the film too much about it; after all, this is a movie that wants to be relevant to a wider audience because Scientology’s victims come from all stripes. The interviewees are well chosen and tell their experiences with great passion, including filmmaker Paul Haggis, and people who were once close to the leadership of the Church.
One of the striking themes, apart from the threats and mistreatment they faced, is a sense of shame that the defectors are struggling with. How is it possible to be so deceived? We’ve heard much of all this before, but rarely has the story of Scientology, its methods and the ruthless leadership of David Miscavige been depicted in such a thrilling but also fully convincing and penetrating way. It’s a tremendous achievement by Gibney and Wright; very well directed and illustrated.
In the end, it is reasonable to direct some anger at Tom Cruise and John Travolta who are still Scientologists. The film discusses how the cult can be defeated if the tax-exempt status is revoked, which is up to the government. Another way is if one of those movie stars turned their back on the Church; it would have a devastating effect. Unfortunately, both men seem hopelessly ensnared. Money plays a part, but they also probably believe for real that their success is due to Hubbard’s sci-fi hokum.
Gibney’s film brilliantly presents a problem that affects people all over the world, how it arose, and what can be done about it. But who’s strong enough to do what’s needed?
Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief 2015-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Alex Gibney, Kristen Vaurio, Lawrence Wright. Written and directed by Alex Gibney.
Last word: “Right now [drones are] the flavor of the month. I think people will get tired of them, but they do afford you a rather unique opportunity. It’s almost like God’s Louma crane. Suddenly, you come up over a tree as we have done to show the blue building of Scientology and it’s a pretty dramatic shot and then you can fly over it. You know, Spanky Taylor, who’s one of the women interviewed in the film, talks about how they used to have to sleep on these wet mattresses on the roof of the building and we can glide over the roof. So, it’s pretty dramatic and it can be very, very useful in a lot of instances.” (Gibney, Vulture)