Probably the greatest of South Park’s myriad sins against 21st century secular life is that it has made Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard’s libidinally deficient but extraordinarily wealthy cargo cult, into something thoroughly absurd and unknowable. By exposing hordes of millennials to Scientology’s most bizarre export – its certifiably wild creation myth – South Park relegated the religion to the dusty corners of New Age; becoming a movement worth no more or less attention than homeopathy or Ouija boards.
Documentaries like Alex Gibney’s Going Clear go some way towards showing Scientology’s true face: a deeply abusive and extortionate organisation which thrives on the basest expressions of institutional protection. Framed around the book of the same name by New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright, Going Clear takes a dual historical and anecdotal approach to Scientology, exploring both its development under Hubbard as well as personal accounts from former devotees, some of whom were top dogs in the militarised internal structures of the religion.
It’s all pretty compelling stuff. Gibney is known for his slow, methodical explorations of power and its abuse, and Going Clear is no different. Using a mixture of the aforementioned interviews and some deeply bizarre internal Scientology videos and collateral, he paints a picture of a quasi-gnostic self-improvement sect turned into a hawkish capitalist machine as postwar optimism gave way to neoliberal cynicism. Indeed, the film does not lend much credence to the widely held notion that Scientology is intentionally a lunatic pyramid scheme – Gibney narrates that Hubbard genuinely believed and practiced what he preached, and a fuller picture of the inherent abusive drive of institutions is drawn. It’s the same approach Gibney took to the colossally corrupt bankers of Enron in The Smartest Guys In The Room and Catholic child sex abuse in Mea Maxima Culpa. Amongst a field of analysis which examines Scientology as a cabal of rich wackos gone wild on the taxpayer’s dime, Going Clear thrives.
But when it does come to rich wackos gone wild, Going Clear also delivers. Much of the film’s third act focuses on the unholy alliance of the Church of Scientology and Hollywood through some of its top stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. One of the primary interview subjects is Paul Haggis, Hollywood screenwriter and Scientology’s most renowned heretic, who provides some historical context as to how the original batch of Hollywood personalities found themselves within the church. Gibney draws this out to the current state of affairs, where celebrities like Travolta are part of the church’s spiritual lifeblood, and unable to separate themselves due to the incredible depth of knowledge church officials have about their lives.
Scientology’s systems of abuse are explored in great detail. The various punitive means by which the organisation punishes wayward members – such as stalking, isolation and imprisonment –are explored as if they were being perpetrated by something like a state apparatus. This is pure Gibney – part of his deep-seated view that all institutions are liable to backslide into tyranny through a slow ossification of rights. One scene, in which the deranged President of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige forces some of his own top brass to play a crazed game of musical chairs before beating them, seems almost beyond belief.
The film is lean and economical, formed around Gibney’s narration, interviews and archival materials. Once exception is the pulp sci-fi Scientology creation, which is told through a bizarre digital collage which makes it seem even more absurd and which may be the most experimental scene Gibney has produced yet. Going Clear is dense with information – condensing a 400 page book into a 2 hour film – and its clear narrative benefits. Still, it feels piecemeal at times. The defectors who make up the film’s heft are forced to tell the story of their spiritual lives in a reasonably truncated way, which means you never quite get a sense of what led them to embrace Scientology (arguably the most interesting opportunity of the film). We get brief vignettes of spiritual yearning and scholastic philosophical interest, along with some cryptic comparisons to other religious movements like radical Islam from the book’s author, but never anything concrete. This, as I said, feels like a limitation of time more than anything else, and the film suffers for it.
Going Clear is a good documentary, not only as a reasonably comprehensive account of the history and function of the Church of Scientology, but as a workable parable about the unshakable trajectory of institution toward violent self-preservation. Gibney’s vision of ideology as concrete, organisational and hellbent on survival might come across as somewhat cynical, especially when viewed through the lens of the rest of his ouevre, but is establishes a simple truth: despite its pulpy trimmings, Scientology is not an unknowable, otherwordly cult of crackpots – it is an institution that has run amok in the invisible spaces left outside of the State and society’s oversight. That alone is valuable.
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