In the early 1970s, ranking officers within the church of Scientology initiated a plan to neutralize Paulette Cooper, the journalist behind a withering book criticizing the church’s practices and beliefs. The plan included schemes to defame Cooper by spreading rumors of her purported sexual promiscuity, and another to get her jailed or institutionalized by framing her for sending threatening letters to world leaders. The plot was discovered when federal authorities raided Scientology offices while investigating another active church operation to steal government records, which resulted in criminal convictions for 11 highly-placed church members. By that time, Cooper had already been indicted for mailing bomb threats to the church, the successful result of the frame-up dubbed “Operation Dynamite.”
For those planning to watch HBO’s bruising documentary Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief, fear not: The preceding paragraph contains not a single spoiler. Going Clear doesn’t mention Cooper’s years of harassment at the hands of the church of Scientology, which also included the vexatious litigation so integral to Scientology’s institutional brand. The omission hints at just how many horror stories director Alex Gibney had to choose from when constructing the film. Going Clear is densely packed with exhaustive and exhausting research about the church of Scientology and crushing personal testimony from church defectors, and it’s the volume of damning allegations that makes the film so unsettling. Worse than the tales of the church’s unconscionable financial, psychological, and physical abuse is the pervasive sense that the scope of human suffering is wider than a two-hour documentary can comfortably accommodate.
Gibney, who directed Taxi To The Dark Side and We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks, was already shortlisted in the unofficial race for most important documentarian of the past decade. With Going Clear, he solidifies his reputation for fearless filmmaking by targeting the church of Scientology, which if not for Tom Cruise’s high-profile membership, would be best known for its scorched-earth policy toward detractors and apostates. The risk feels more palpable as Gibney interviews the ballsy cadre of former Scientologists who left the church and speak publicly about its alleged widespread abuses, thereby invoking its wrath. The subjects tell harrowing stories of victimization at the hands of omnipotent church officials, mostly suffered through their memberships in the Sea Org, the church’s elite, marine sect which bears resemblance to the fictional organization in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Documentaries about reformed cult members tend to portray them as unmoored souls primarily driven by a yearning to belong and a willingness to invest in any cause that comes with a surrogate family. The subjects of Going Clear don’t sound like longing drifters. Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor talks like a woman with a genuine interest in leaving the planet in better shape than she came into it. A former political social worker, Taylor eventually became John Travolta’s publicist and spent 17 years as a Scientologist, devoutly adhering to the teachings of church founder L. Ron Hubbard. She was drawn to the church’s promise of an approach to curing societal dysfunction based on humanistic principles rather than the broad ideologies that underpinned her social work. The six- or seven-figure financial commitment, the abuse, and the looming threat of being ostracized by loved ones are missing from the sales pitch.
Hubbard’s teachings appealed to people who, like Taylor, were high achievers motivated to change the world around them and searching for the means to do it. Gibney uses archival footage to trace the path of Hubbard’s life, beginning with Hubbard as a young fabulist who went from embellishing tales from his brief, inauspicious military career to cranking out sci-fi potboilers at a furious pace. According to one of Hubbard’s wives, he was frustrated by the Internal Revenue Service and concluded he should start a religion, allowing him to collect tax-exempt income. Hubbard moved from science fiction to science self-help with Dianetics, a heady spiritual tome from which Hubbard designed the framework for Scientology after the Dianetics sales boom cratered.
It sounds like a long con, but in Going Clear, actual malice is a moving target. Hubbard is portrayed as an unrepentant huckster, but also as a self-declared visionary who suffered from severe psychological disturbances and at least partially believed in what he was peddling. The film is undoubtedly a case against Hubbard and Scientology, but it doesn’t shy away from the contradictions of either. Hubbard put real stock in the efficacy of the E-meter, a tool he helped develop to rid the body of negative emotions in so-called “auditing sessions.” Some disillusioned members still speak fondly of the relief they experienced after auditing sessions, including Academy Award-winning writer-director Paul Haggis, who says the church’s tenets saved his most valued relationships. Gibney paints Scientology as a racket, but one fueled by its followers’ positive results. The doctrine became realer to Hubbard as it gained evangelists, validating Hubbard’s ideas, which were then codified into the religion even when they were bigoted, unethical, or vindictive.
Though the film’s thesis is about faith, Going Clear is a more effective treatise on the evils of corporate culture than on the perils of spiritual certainty. The church of Scientology is depicted as being greedy above all else, hoarding an estimated $3 billion in assets for the financial enrichment of a select few, including chairman David Miscavige. Heading the church of Scientology is a job for which Miscavige seems exclusively qualified. In addition to being the quintessential soulless capitalist, the film depicts Miscavige as megalomaniacal, paranoid, and physically abusive, as if he were literally Hubbard’s reincarnation. He also advances Hubbard’s strategy to glamorize the church with celebrity endorsements. The film depicts a disturbing relationship between Miscavige and Cruise, whose every whim is satisfied in exchange for serving as the church’s public face. It’s an abjectly unflattering portrayal of Cruise. While Miscavige is the tyrant, Gibney argues, Cruise is the person in the best position to expose and reform the church’s abusive practices but would rather enjoy the spoils of Scientology’s war against its own members.
Going Clear is a shocking exposé that’s most shocking because it wasn’t conceived as an exposé. Lawrence Wright, the author of the similarly-titled book from which the film culls its research, says he began his exploration with an open mind. “My goal wasn’t to write an exposé, it was simply to understand Scientology, trying to understand what people get out of it,” says Wright. And yet Going Clear is the most scorching, disturbing documentary in recent memory, not because Wright and Gibney smuggled agendas, but because the institutionalized cruelty and avarice alleged against the church of Scientology precludes pure objectivity.