Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Palace of Lies: HBO’s Going Clear

Scientology is markedly different from most other religions, not only in its practices but in how it’s perceived by the public. Has there ever been such a universally disparaged belief system? It’s easy for scoffing cynics to dismiss the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard as pure nonsense – and they’re unequivocally right to do so – but to level the same cynicism at the people who willingly choose to ally themselves with his hated institution is to fundamentally misunderstand, or at least disregard, what keeps them there. For the most part, these aren’t suckers and rubes being conned into participating in something against their will: these are intelligent, thoughtful skeptics, who will defend the benefits of Scientology even when faced with overwhelming evidence of its corruption and malpractice. And so the casual question of how anyone in their right minds could jibe with this stuff becomes a very important one: a question of how belief itself can be dangerous.

Documentarian Alex Gibney shoulders the burden of this question, and of the vicious wrath that his exposé would come to invite from the famously litigious Church. Gibney has established himself as a filmmaker unafraid to venture into the dark corners of society and, of course, tell a good story in the process. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, based on a book of (almost) the same name by Lawrence Wright, achieves both as a fearless examination of Scientology’s inner workings. Gibney conducts interviews with eight former members of the Church, including Hollywood screenwriter/producer Paul Haggis (a Scientologist for nearly three decades) and several former high-ranking members of the organization like Mark Rathbun (the Church’s second-in-command) and Mike Rinder (former head of the Church’s Office of Special Affairs), whose shockingly damning testimony has earned them accolades from film critics and vitriol from current Church members in equal measure. But what is it, I can hear you asking, that’s so shocking? What could they possibly reveal about this laughable dog-and-pony show that you wouldn’t already know – or, more troublingly, that the Church is desperate to deny? The Church of Scientology’s policy of loudly and ruthlessly denouncing its critics and apostates is well-known, so this may not seem like unusual behaviour. But Gibney’s interview subjects speak candidly about common practices of systemic verbal and physical abuse and behaviour control which borders on brainwashing. Their claims of unchecked corruption at the Church’s higher levels and of the attacks inflicted on its willing members are just cause for retaliation, which makes the effect of Going Clear incredibly potent. These people sat down to speak with Gibney knowing full well that doing so was dangerous to their personal and financial futures, because if leaving the Church wasn’t enough to provoke its wrath, defaming it so publicly certainly is.

David Miscavige, current leader of the Church of Scientology.
The film is divided into three acts. First, the interviewees recount how they initially became involved with Scientology. Then, Gibney briefly relates the history of the Church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, and how the organization was formed. Finally, the interviewees make allegations of abuse and misconduct by Church officials, particularly current Church head David Miscavige, who is personally accused of intimidating, beating, imprisoning, and exploiting his followers. Taken together, these sections form a picture of a seemingly-innocuous organization focused on self-help and public good (which is the image the Church attempts to project to this day), founded by a charismatic yet deeply troubled man, which is actually rife behind closed doors with deep-seated ethical issues. Gibney expands the interviews with archival footage and dramatic reconstructions that are effective in highlighting Hubbard’s life, from his embarrassing military career as a young man (he was drummed out of the Navy after several mishaps, including one in which he purportedly shelled an abandoned Cuban island because he thought it was a submarine) to his incredibly prolific writing career (he cranked out dime-store science fiction pulp so fast that he holds the Guinness World Record for the most published works, with over a thousand novels – most of dubious quality – to his name). According to the film, Hubbard became disgusted with the Internal Revenue Service and decided he wanted to collect tax-free income, which led him to wanting to start a religion (one of the few public organizations whose earnings are tax-exempt). His self-help tome Dianetics, which sold like hotcakes in the 1950s and 60s, became the foundation of what would grow into Scientology, and helped him create the Sea Org, his seafaring missionary platform (which really functioned as a way for Hubbard to continue evading taxes, and whose similarity to the fictional organization in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is no accident). The film paints Hubbard as a remorseless mountebank who was nonetheless willing to drink his own brand of Kool-Aid (he gave every indication that he thought his personally-invented “e-meter” device, used in self-help “auditing sessions,” was truly beneficial), and a mentally unstable individual to boot. Why someone might follow him – or come to revere him, as many in the organization do – seems ludicrous, until the film reveals the way the program is structured so that any information about the Church’s actual tenets beyond the self-help fluff at the outset is kept hidden until they achieve a certain echelon of seniority within the Church (and the appropriate fees have of course been paid). In a powerful sequence, Paul Haggis expresses his bewilderment, after years of providing dedication and financial support to the cause, at what was revealed to him as a senior member: the baffling sci-fi hogwash that, thanks to South Park and countless other satirical sources, has turned Scientology’s belief system into a laughingstock. Hubbard’s preposterous tales of ancient extraterrestrial spirits, banished to Earth millions of years ago and now housed within every living human being, were never meant to be made public knowledge. It was only those who were deeply indoctrinated that were ever allowed to know these “secrets” – but the crushing financial burden required to achieve that rank, not to mention the constant abuse endured along the way, must have been enough to motivate them to share that absurdity with the world. It was certainly enough for Haggis, who claims he was on board for the self-help stuff, but couldn’t help but respond to Hubbard’s secret teachings with an indignant “What the fuck?”

The film’s central thesis about the dangers of blind faith seems almost self-evident. Gibney’s interview subjects don’t come off as dreamy misfits or depressed failures, like you’d expect a cult follower to be. There are no impressionable or empty minds on display. These are smart people, engaged with Scientology because they truly want to help make the world a better place, and they were led to believe the Church was a good path towards that goal. (The fact that they eventually “woke up” and left, despite the very real threat of being ostracized by friends and family alike, is also a testament to their intelligence.) Going Clear speaks less to this purported topic than it does to the unchecked avarice upon which this Church is built; with an estimated $3 billion in tax-free cash filling his coffers, Miscavige is portrayed as a figure of almost unimaginable greed, whose megalomaniacal tendencies rival those of Hubbard himself. His relationship with celebrity Church members, especially Tom Cruise, casts him in a deeply troubling light: a man unafraid to control his Church and its image through the forceful application of bribery. This also speaks very ill of Cruise, who Gibney makes a point to disparage for his unwillingness to speak out against the Church’s practices, given his high-profile position as Scientology’s mouthpiece.

Lawrence, author of the book upon which Going Clear is based, and who is also an interviewee in the film, claims he never set out to write an exposé of Scientology. He genuinely wanted to understand it and why its members are drawn to it, and in exploring these questions he drew back the curtain on a world of human suffering he could never have imagined. And, with its asinine mythology and self-help claptrap, it’s quite hard for skeptics like me to take it seriously. But the point Gibney makes with Going Clear – and it is a point made with chilling precision – is that there’s nothing laughable about Scientology. It is a cage of systemic anguish housed within a palace of lies, and no amount of sneering dismissal will mend the lives it has ruined.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief aired on HBO in the U.S., and will soon be opening theatrically in Canada.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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