It doesn’t occur until about a third of the way into Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, but when the recorded voice of L. Ron Hubbard outlines a key part of Scientology doctrine involving a tyrannical galactic overlord named Xenu, the story sounds nothing like the pop-cultural punchline it’s become in recent years. It comes off, rather, like a fascinating and profoundly disturbing glimpse into the psyche of the man himself. Collaborating with author Lawrence Wright, on whose 2013 book this documentary is based, director Alex Gibney follows a chronology of the church, beginning with Hubbard’s origins as sci-fi pulp writer and world traveler, his development of Dianetics in the 1950s, and how his ostensible breakthrough in modern mental health slowly, and by design, metastasized into the legally protected, tax-exempt religion that exists today.
In telling this story, Going Clear presents an overwhelming cache of official documents and footage that bring to visual life much of the speculation and innuendo surrounding the church’s furtive operations, from footage of Hubbard cutting a smarmy, Walt Disney-like figure as he puckishly chastises an interviewer for likening Scientology to Freudian psychology to more recent video of the church’s current master and commander, David Miscavige, perched on a Third Reich-style stage, announcing to an arena of followers that the organization’s war for tax-exempt status has been finally won. If some of the film’s revelations have already surfaced online and through other sources, Going Clear distinguishes itself by tying that material into a coherent framework that provides a concise, scholarly context within which Scientology can be understood as a real system of beliefs, with roots in a specific time and place. Such a cultural context allows the film to develop as a focused examination beyond how it could be that a science-fiction writer invented a religion at all and to what actually draws people to it.
Exploring Scientology’s relationship to Hollywood, Going Clear focuses its sights on the stations of John Travolta and Tom Cruise within the church. The film smartly avoids salaciousness to illustrate the actors as highly valuable assets to the church both financially and from a public-relations perspective. Of the two, it’s Cruise’s status as Scientology’s celebrity ambassador, however, that stands to be more permanently marred by the documentary’s assertions (namely, that Cruise has allowed himself to become the international face of a religious organization responsible for documented mistreatment of its members). A fair amount of time is spent putting into perspective disparate pieces of information about Cruise’s involvement with the church that the public has already had glimpses of: Cruise’s close relationship to Miscavige; the church’s role in the dissolution of his marriage to Nicole Kidman; and a disturbing story involving actress Nazanin Boniadi, a young Scientologist who, the film convincingly claims, was groomed over a period time to be Cruise’s girlfriend and then abruptly discharged to cleaning bathrooms following an incident in which she offended Miscavige. If not equally unsettling, certainly more pointed is the 2004 footage of Miscavige presenting Cruise with an award called the Freedom Medal of Valor during a grand ceremony celebrating Cruise’s work for the church. Over-produced and tacky, the official video shows Miscavige and Cruise embracing like chummy frat bros before Cruise delivers an acceptance speech and finally salutes a giant portrait of Hubbard dressed in suit, hand resting on large globe.
Juxtaposed against Going Clear’s damning claims of Miscavige’s abuse of power and history of physical violence against particular church members, it’s the bizarreness of this last image that raises necessary questions: To what degree is Cruise aware of such incidents? If he’s aware at all, to what extent is he a willing beneficiary of Miscavige’s exploitation of church policies? Though the film fails to answer these questions, it very squarely implicates Cruise as the public figure with the most potential power to hold the church accountable for its abuses. It convincingly substantiates a special relationship between Cruise and Miscavige that’s all but impossible to justify in the context of a religion that’s known to bleed members into crushing financial and emotional ruin under the guise of making the world a better place.
Where Going Clear most powerfully conveys the mindset of a believer, though, is in its interweaving of the personal stories of top-ranking officials and otherwise hidden faces who’ve managed to extricate themselves from Scientology’s grip over the years. It might have been enough to hear the darker parts of their journeys (how some were pushed to the brink of insanity, how families were torn apart), but many are given time to articulate what it was that the church offered to them as spiritual seekers. Casting light on the inherent contradictions between the public claims of Scientology as an applied philosophy and its actual practices, the film gives voice to these peoples’ stories by inserting them as recurring reference points throughout the film, from its opening credits to its closing shot.
Their stories vary in circumstance and tone, but what unifies them is a search for purpose and meaning and an admirable desire to clear the planet of insanity and war. It’s the steady corruption of that earnestness, represented by the experience of someone like Hana Eltringham Whitfield, recruited by Hubbard himself to become one of the church’s original Sea Org members, that puts the faith at the heart of Scientology into perspective. Recounting the turning point in her decision to break from Hubbard’s charismatic influence after 19 years, Whitfield says, “I could not continue this game of Scientology without explaining away what he was doing. It got to be a way of believing.” Much more than just an exposé, Going Clear penetrates the nature of faith to confront anxious questions about why any of us believe the things we do.