Monday, March 30, 2015

'Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief' review

I've always wondered what goes on in the world of Scientology. In American culture and especially the world of Hollywood, Scientology exists as this sort of enigma, something that everybody knows about, but nobody truly knows what it is. If you mention the word Scientology to someone, they'll probably know that Tom Cruise and John Travolta are members and maybe they'll know a little bit about the basics of the religion, but they probably won't know much more than that. Part of that can be chalked up to the almost paradoxical complexity of the religion and part of the blame can be placed on David Miscavige and the secrecy of the powerful organization. Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief premiered at Sundance in January and is just now debuting on HBO, and it reveals an unprecedented, haunting and baffling look at the twisted world of L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige and Scientology.

Going Clear chronicles most of the history of Scientology, starting with pulp fiction writer Hubbard and his interest in the occult. It moves on to deal with Dianetics, before examining the modern history of the Church, with its massive abuses of power, blackmail, secret Hollywood dealings and brutal prison camps. Through the use of interviews with high ranking former members of the Church (the most famous being director Paul Haggis), Gibney provides a dumbfounding and intriguing look at one of America's most secretive "religions."

If there ever was a story about the abuse of power and the dangers of faith, the tale of Scientology is it. And Gibney does an absolutely fabulous job of crafting a unique and incredible look into the Church. Scientology began as a way for L. Ron Hubbard to make money slowly without getting taxed and quickly evolved into a dangerous organization. And I believe that a lot of that started with David Miscavige. However, the first half of the film is devoted to Hubbard's tale, and of course, the guy was a bit nuts. Hubbard was involved in a satanic cult at one point and was an abusive and manipulative figure in regards to his relationship with his wife. He used Dianetics as a sort of complement to the psychology and psychoanalysis of the 1950's and he continued to spread the word of the Church with the help of a group of loyal teenagers.

Hubbard eventually became a problem and spent most of the remainder of his life in hiding. The real question that the film leaves open is: Did Hubbard really intend for Scientology to be the awful force that it is? Or were his intentions elsewhere? I don't know for sure and I couldn't possibly speculate. However, I do know that power in the Church was passed down the line to David Miscavige, who is portrayed terrifyingly in this film. Gibney managed to snag interviews with both famous Hollywood figures and former high-ranking members of the Scientology hierarchy. All of those members describe Miscavige as an insane, deluded, dangerous and violent individual.

Gibney structures most of the disturbing and unbelievable truths of the film in the second half, especially once they reach the Tom Cruise scandal and the prison camps. We all vaguely knew what happened with Cruise back when he divorced Nicole Kidman, but this film confirms it. Marty Rathbun certifies that there was a staggering amount of effort put into the Church's involvement and that since, Cruise has become deluded and nearly all-powerful.

The prison camp details are even more ghastly. People forced to clean floors with their tongues. Clean toilets with a toothbrush. In the film's most brilliant and sickening sequence, Gibney stages a reenactment of "Musical Chairs," a game that the members of "The Hole" would play to stay at the camp. It's all set to Queen's ''Bohemian Rhapsody" and it's really amazing to watch.

Gibney's major struggle with this film is finding a good place to begin and end the story. There's no flashy introduction and the ending is a simple, but powerful image. However, that's always the challenge with an incomplete story. The tale of Scientology is far from over and the Church has continued to spread its influence around the world.

What makes Scientology dangerous is that it isn't a religion. It's blatantly and unquestionably a cult. Essentially, the Church preys on young and vulnerable individuals who are simply desperate for something to believe in. I feel like this is best portrayed in the film by Paul Haggis' testimony, who says that he was experiencing marital troubles and Scientology managed to solve it. However, as Haggis notes, once he got to the truth of the religion and once he started to face pressure for more donations, he realized that the Church was too controlling.

Scientology is an organization that thrives on fear, blackmail and pressure. The actual religion is unbelievable even for the most powerful of members. I'm sure that some of the members are crazy enough to believe in Xenu the Galactic Overlord, people born from volcanoes, and Thetans, but the majority are simply suckered in by the psychology of it all. They end up spilling their deepest secrets and that keeps them in the organization forever.

Some may consider this film to be a smear attack on Scientology and say that it's biased. But it's not. Gibney gave Miscavige and the Church plenty of opportunities to defend themselves against some pretty disgusting allegations, and they decline every time. Gibney chalks this up to their attack and not defend tactic, but I will never understand why they've remained in the shadows. Maybe it's because it's all true. Or it just might be because their religion is so crazy that if the truth was revealed, nobody would actually stay.

I've spent much of this review discussing the aspects of this film and less about the craft at hand. In truth, this is an expertly crafted and uniquely interesting documentary. Gibney has a couple of flashes of style, but most of it is tastefully and politely done. There are only a few segments of narration and Gibney truly allows for the victims to tell their story. As the Hubbard era died down, the film became slightly dry, but Gibney manages to keep the film moving forward and it is a delightfully absurd ride.

Going Clear premiered on HBO last night and it's too early to determine the impact that the film will have on possible lawsuits and the future of Scientology. But I applaud Gibney and author Lawrence Wright for giving an interesting and unique look into the religion. I knew that Scientologists were crazy, but I didn't know they were this crazy. In the end, Going Clear is a film about the regrets of a group of people and the maniacal gang of insanity that destroyed their life. And it's an incredible piece of journalism at the same time.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                            (8.5/10)

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