Words By: Jack Dawson
Thanks to the likes of Michael Moore and Supersize Me, documentaries that reach the big screen earn a lot of scepticism, quite rightly given the above examples. But every so often there comes a long a documentary where my sincerest hope is that it really is a biased fake, because the apparent truth is almost too horrifying to comprehend. In fact the confronting nature of the truth is one of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’s main themes, as well as it’s primary criticism of Scientology.
This film is mostly told through the testimonies of former Scientologists, those of the lesser ranks to the powers behind the proverbial throne. We get to see the birth of Scientology as a tax dodge formed by the abusive and paranoid L. Ron Hubbard, its victory of being declared tax exempt as a Religion, and the numerous crimes and human rights violations that several old members have admitted to committing and suffering from.
It’s about as funny as it sounds.
This is admittedly a little outside of my comfort zone to review, since I’m used to analysing movies based on the fictional narratives they spin and the tropes and conventions they utilise and abuse. But now I’m looking at a non-fictional narrative spun from tropes and conventions that are used, and very rarely abused. It’s kind of impossible to watch this film without recollecting your own opinions and memories of Scientology, whether it be old gossip pieces of John Travolta being blackmailed to stay in the cult, or that one South Park Episode where Tom Cruise denied he was in the closet (tangentially related to the episode where Tom Cruise denies being a fudge packer).
But even if you feel like you need a refresher course on Scientology and its background, this film is kind enough to provide you with one. And the film gains a kind of authenticity from the fact that Scientologists tend to be both litigation happy and frighteningly experienced in the fine art of doublethink. The film might occasionally obscure details or select their takes carefully, in the same benign way that all documentaries do, but one can at least take comfort in the fact that Going Clear is probably more honest than their subject matter.
I will note at this point that the presentation is quite good, with the occasional flat note. There’s a wonderfully consistent design at work, and the framing device of the different interviews as ‘Auditing’ sessions is thematically very appropriate. The more presentational elements are perfectly realised, a particular standout being the segment surrounding the reveal of Scientology’s creation myth (yes that’s the one featuring Volcanos and Aliens). The representational elements don’t hold up so well, coming across as either trite or a little unimaginative. The recreation of one of L. Ron Hubbard’s wives walking across a frozen lake is a good example of this, hardly awful to look at, but falls short compared to the rest of the visuals on display. But all in all it’s a stylish and polished film that’s on display here.
Probably one of the most interesting aspects of this film, at least to me, is that it tries to construct a narrative for every one of its participants. Sylvia ‘Spanky’ Taylor has an exciting story of personal perseverance, Marty Rathbun has one of personal atonement and degradation, even John Travolta is offered a brief moment of sympathy and triumph. It’s telling that as much as several the older members may look on their days as Scientologists with laughter and snark, they also look back with genuine shame. Some of them have a lot to be ashamed about.
But above all Going Clear almost seems like one of the greatest depictions of evil in film. Several subjects point out that both L. Rob Hubbard and the current de-facto Pope of Scientology David Miscavige would have taken the money and run if they didn’t truly believe in Scientology, and it’s a pathetic man who wields that much power and who also believes whole heartedly in immaterial aliens causing all mental and physical aberrations.
But both men have committed serious crimes against their sincere disciples, perpetuated outdated stereotypes and attitudes (including some choice sentiments about homosexuality), and have taken perverse pleasures in attacking any and all critics of said faults. And whether it be for their sincere beliefs or a truly absurd amount of money, both men come across as almost irredeemably evil.
I should note that this is an interpretation of the two public figures as seen in the film and not an actual analysis of both men in real life, and incidentally that was some great free press they drummed up for HBO.
Going Clear is a fantastically evocative film, with a clear focus and commitment to its own ideals. One of the conclusions that Going Clear reaches is that education about some of the nastier aspects of Scientology and the characteristics of emotional and psychological abuse is imperative to combating Scientology and similar cults. And that’s what this film is, a lesson in the dangers of belief and the circumstances that created and maintained Scientology. But probably the first and last point it teaches its viewers, is that a mind is a terrible thing to lose.
Especially when you’re the one who gives it away so willingly.