Alex Gibney's new documentary doesn't exactly blow the lid off Scientology, about which rumors, ever crazier, have been swirling for years. And the book by Lawrence Wright that it's based on, which was published in 2013, was able to delve more deeply into the many, many reports of physical abuse, financial scams and bizarre practices that characterize the more extreme aspects of the religion. But there's something to seeing the actual footage of the Nazi-esque Scientology rallies, and hearing direct accounts from eight former members of the Church over the course of this two hour expose, that really makes your jaw drop when you realize that seemingly rational people can allow themselves to be so taken in by what's become the most widely recognized cult in the world.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, is a gripping, thoroughly engrossing takedown that hooks you in the first hour with its biography of founder L. Ron Hubbard, exposed as nothing less than a mentally ill fraud, who came up with the idea of starting a new religion, because "that's how you make money," and took nearly all the tenets of it from the science fiction pulp novels he wrote in the 1930's and 40's. As his mental state deteriorated, he gained followers who treated him like a god, and he responded as one, by gathering his members together and testing how far they were willing to go for him. It's clear from the start that nearly every move Hubbard made declaring his made up beliefs a religion was so he could evade federal taxes and hoard the money he was making from his willing devotees- but it's also clear that this man was violent, unstable and desperately in need of mental help, which he tried and failed to procure from real psychologists in the late 1940's.
As the story unfolds, the second hour of the documentary details the progression of the church in the wake of Hubbard's death in the 1980's, when one of his lifelong followers, David Miscavige, then in his 30's, voluntarily stepped up to take his place, and made it his life's mission to wage war on the IRS and get Scientology declared an official religion and a tax exempt organization. Unbelievably, the IRS backed down in the early 90's in the face of bad PR from the thousands of lawsuits by Scientology members threatening to expose the agency's own mistakes, and the church was granted tax exempt status and forgiven its billion dollar debt. In the decades since, abuse has only run more and more rampant by the leaders against their own members, especially those involved in the upper levels of the organization (you know, the levels after you've forked over enough cash to be allowed in on the secret alien origins of the universe and Xenu, the Galactic Overlord).
The revelations by traumatized ex-members are gobsmacking, especially accusations involving child abuse, slave labor, and "the Hole," a prison camp set up by Miscavige where he contains people for months or even years, so that he can personally physically assault and torture the willing participants (this is the detail that proved to be the last straw for three of his colleagues in the higher ranks, who jumped ship in in the mid-00's in order to tell their stories, after membership and association with Miscavige going back to their childhoods). Finally, the celebrity gossip involved is also too riveting to look away from, such as reports from John Travolta's former handler that he's been blackmailed by the church into staying a member due to the years of personal information they've collected on him through "auditing" sessions, and the now well known but no less disturbing accounts of Tom Cruise as the biggest Scientology star, who thinks he's best friends with Miscavige himself and seems to have been utterly sucked in by the church's fawning adulation and worship of him as another god in their organization. It's even confirmed by the former higher ups that the church was directly responsible for breaking up his marriage to Nicole Kidman (a non-Scientologist perceived as a threat) and turning their children against their own mother in extensive further auditing at Mscavige's personal orders.
This is quite a damning expose, and portrays the cult as essentially a multibillion dollar real estate scam that rakes millions of dollars from its members in return for sycophantic worship of the more "important" celebrities, and physical abuse of the underlings and their children. You come away from it partly wanting to learn more (this could easily have been a miniseries) and also hoping that David Miscavige will now be unable to maintain the level of corruption absolute power has yielded within him. In order for that to happen, more and more will have to speak out, despite extreme and terrifying continual harassment by the church against former members and critics. If that continues to be the case, perhaps the IRS will reverse its position on the status of the church, as investigation into the cult will undoubtedly produce evidence of fraudulent business practices and abuses far beyond the parameters of other "religions." For now we can only feel sorry for those desperate enough to get taken in by this charade, many of whom have lost years of their lives to it.
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