If Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Alex Gibney's new documentary, only illuminated the outsized personality of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, it would be a fascinating study of one of the most compelling figures of the mid-twentieth century. But this film, based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same title, is so much more, exposing the secretive society that Hubbard founded within our broader society. Given to bizarre behavior, tantrums, and self-aggrandizement, Hubbard wrote the best-selling Dianetics and with that invented an ideology. Hubbard found a way to avoid taxes by naming this phenomenon a church, and he understood that the one thing Americans truly worshiped was celebrity: John Travolta and Tom Cruise were cultivated to lure a populace to its ranks. When Hubbard died of a stroke in 1986, his reign fell to David Miscavige, who expanded the empire; his speeches to the fold -- footage shown through fair use -- are done on a spotlit stage with Nazi-esque imagery crossed with Who Wants to be a Millionaire extravaganza.
The worst offense to the church is to leave it, but several high-level parishioners have. Some interviewed in Going Clear tell tales of harrowing punishment, prison-like conditions, slave wages, and other abuses. Those who leave, among them Paul Haggis, Mike Rinder, and Sara Goldberg, tell stories of daring escape, many having to give up their families. "Spanky" Taylor, whose task was to mind high-profile Scientologists at the Hollywood Celebrity Centre, most particularly Travolta, fled, baby in arms, in a non-church friend's car. Their reasons for joining in the first place are equally fascinating. The film goes far to show Scientology as instrumental in breaking up Tom Cruise's marriage to Nicole Kidman, her children turned against her.
This particular detail was new to Lawrence Wright, he said at lunch last week at HBO -- the network will air the film on March 29 after a brief theatrical run. The New Yorker writer learned the truth about the tabloid breakup in the making of the film, well after he had researched his book. Katie Holmes' story, outside the film's purview, is yet to be revealed. Scientology does not tolerate criticism, this we know, as they took out a full-page New York Times ad attempting to discredit the film's veracity before anyone saw it. Would the lawyers at HBO allow untruths in their programming, particularly with a scrutiny-averse organization? And Alex Gibney, the gutsy filmmaker who took on abuses in the Catholic Church in his Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God -- what does he think of this negative publicity? He said his only problem was they did not print the play dates.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.