Written by guest contributor Dave Fox
Over the next few weeks, I'll be counting down my top 5 films of 2015. Here's number 5, Alex Gibney's extraordinary documentary on the "Church" of Scientology.
You might not realise it, but there are good odds that at least some of your favourite celebrities are scientologists. Even if you're not a fan of well known Scientology godheads Tom Cruise and John Travolta, there are rafts of famous people still drinking L. Ron's Kool Aid, ranging from Beck to Jason Lee to Isaac Hayes. These days, Cruise is by far the most famous face associated with the Church, and largely thanks to his sofa jumping antics on Oprah, Scientology seems to be viewed as a kooky quasi-cult for the rich. Weird, sure, but harmless. If you're of that opinion, sit down and watch Going Clear and then see how you feel.
Writer-director Alex Gibney's compelling documentary is shot through with interviews with the journalist Lawrence Wright (on whose book the film is based) and former members, including Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis, actor Jason Beghe, and most interestingly of all, Mark Rathbun (at one time the church's second-in-command) and Mike Rinder (formerly head of the church's "Office for Special Affairs"). The talking heads, though, are only half the story.
Like the book on which it is based, Going Clear is divided into two distinct halves. First we're introduced to the birth of Scientology via its founding father, L. Ron Hubbard. The man Scientologists refer to as "LRH" was a pulp sci-fi writer, churning out over a thousand books to make a living (at a penny a word). He is presented as a pathological liar, a man given to fantasically embellishing his less-than-stellar military career or straight up inventing "field work" studying indigenous tribes.
Hubbard veered away from the sci-fi that was his stock in trade with his 1950 book Dianetics, an attempt at hard psychology fused with his own confusing worldview; taking in outer space and past lives. Surprisingly, Dianetics took hold in certain pockets of America and gave Hubbard a second career as a pyschologist, philospher and P.T. Barnum-esque showman. When Dianetics proved to be a passing fad, Hubbard repackaged his ideas and called it Scientology, and the utopian ideals it claimed to stand for ("a civilisation without war, without instanity, and without drugs") struck a cord in 1960's America, and the Church of Scientology was born.
Of course, it was not recognised as a church and so, with the IRS hunting him for back taxes, Hubbard took to the seas and set up the church's "Sea Org.", a fleet of three ships, whose crewmates signed "billion year" contracts. During these segments of the film, those who saw The Master will shiver in recognition at the archive footage of Hubbard, the inspiration for Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character. Hubbard's mental state is somewhat danced around and it remains unclear whether he was simply scamming people for money or truly believed all the nonsense about thetans.
It's after Hubbard's death that Scientology goes from being a mentally unstable writer's wonky utopian vision to something far more sinister and scary. There was no succession plan in place following Hubbard's death in 1986, so David Miscavage took control. Miscavage looks and sounds like an 80's movie villain; the kind of guy who would bulldoze a youth centre to build a mall, or try to sack Andrew McCarthy for falling in love with a mannequin. In reality he's much worse even than that, and stories of espionage, blackmail, physical and mental abuse and the icy control he allegedly exerts over the likes of Tom Cruise, are too extensive to be listed here. Sufficed to say the testimony from the former church members interviewed (especially Rathburn and Rinder, who were close to Miscavage) is shocking and eye-opening.
Despite focusing with laser precision on dodgy church practices, Gibney avoids sensationalism. The film's tone is inquisative, Gibney is not necessarily aiming for headline grabbing revelations (though he gets some anyway), just to peek under the curtain to try and find out what really happens inside one of the world's most secretive organisation. The worrying thing is, there's almost certainly a lot more about it we don't know. There's not really much to criticise about the film, which is perfectly pitched and doesn't feel overlong despite the running time. It's a bit of shame they could not get interviews with any current church members, but as a title card at the end explains, they all either declined or ignored requests to participate.
Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief is compelling - if sometimes horrying - viewing, and easily one of the best films of 2015, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Unless you're David Miscavage.
Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney
Running Time: 119 Minutes