Here in America 2015, we love our heroes and villains. We’ve loved them in the America of pretty much every other year too, of course. But today, our zeal for the black and white persists even in the face of art and audiences alike that pride themselves on seeing in shades of gray. How many articles have you read (or written!) based on the premise that the lead character in your New Golden Age of Television antihero drama of choice is, in fact, either a pretty solid guy or an irredeemable monster? How many arguments have you had with people of every ideological persuasion who cite the violation of some sociopolitical shibboleth or other as sufficient cause to toss an entire work of art down the memory hole forever? Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright’s bombshell book, Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is a film that invites this kind of polarized reaction—and, in an entirely different context, examines it. On both levels, it refuses to play ball. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
As a clear-eyed chronicle of America’s most controversial young religion, Going Clear acquits itself admirably. Though the faith’s strange, South Park–lampooned creation story is discussed and (memorably) depicted — the Galactic Overlord Xenu’s 75-million-year-old H-bomb genocide against the enemies he incarcerated on the prison planet we know as Earth, the implantation of their baffled and brainwashed souls into human bodies, etc. — it is rightfully not the film’s focus. (“People can believe whatever they want to believe” has become such a mantra among the filmmakers and talking heads during the promotional cycle for the documentary that I forget who actually said it in the documentary.)
Instead, the movie focuses on the verifiable behavior of Scientology’s leaders and believers. This makes for both more humane journalism and more effective activism. If you believe the story of Xenu and want to clear yourself of “body thetans” to ascend “The Bridge to Total Freedom,” there’s little reason to stop you. If you call your estranged wife and tell her you’ve murdered and dismembered your infant daughter, as Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s ex Sarah Northrup claimed he did; if you embellish your C.V. with easily disproven lies about your educational background, your war record, your medical and marital histories, and the success rate of your spiritual progress program; if you wage a decades-long war against your perceived enemies, up to and including framing journalists for death threats, bugging multiple federal agencies, and bringing the IRS to its knees with nuisance lawsuits and harassment; if you routinely beat your subordinates, many of whom you keep in squalid makeshift prisons staffed by clergy who make peanuts while you sit on a $3 billion dollar fortune assembled largely from member donations, as countless ex-Scientologists allege of current leader David Miscavige; if you’re a global superstar who sells the religion to the public while privately living off the labors of low-paid Church employees, a charge Wright and Gibney hit Tom Cruise particularly hard with? That’s a different story, and that’s the one Going Clear’s interested in telling.
This has led to a strangely bifurcated reaction among viewers. The vast majority of reviews, this one included, have been positive. But the pans can look like critiques of two different movies. Is Going Clear a hatchet job that ignores nuance in favor of just beating the shit out of the Church and its adherents? Or is it a kids’-glove paean to Hubbard that gives him a pass while laying all the blame at the feet of his successor, perhaps as a pretext for a leadership coup?
It’s neither, though if you’re looking for heroes and villains — all of us do, from time to time — Going Clear is constructed in such a way as to allow you to find them, simply because there’s a bit of each in every participant. From Hubbard on down, the players in this bizarre real-life drama are presented pretty much as-is. If the martyrs and whistleblowers who were broken down by the Church and escaped to tell about it have dirt on their hands, the movie has them talk about it. And with a few exceptions (Miscavige and Cruise come across as basically inexcusable), the heavies are allowed whatever moments of likeability they’ve genuinely earned. Regardless of Hubbard’s background as a writer of pulp fiction, no one here is allowed to come off as two-dimensional.
For one thing, you’re looking right at them. Going Clear makes extensive use of its roster of ex-Scientolgists — or to the Church, a rogues’ gallery of SPs (Suppressive Persons), to be shunned and shut down at all costs — and they’re an articulate, often endearing bunch. Chicago Fire actor Jason Beghe, a celebrity member-turned-critic, is ruggedly handsome, gravelly voiced, and charmingly profane. Crash writer-director Paul Haggis, whose high-profile defection led to Wright’s initial investigation, is Beghe’s opposite number, balding, bookish, and audibly careful with his words. As a matter of casting, this pays off, since iHaggis’s one big f-bomb — he reacted to Hubbard’s outlandish sci-fi creation story with a baffled “What the fuck is this?” — is film’s biggest laugh line. A close second: an admission from Mike Rinder, a former Scientology spokesperson whose Australian accent and garrulous nature clearly made him a good fit for that job, that he’d lied to BBC journalist John Sweeney about whether Church was having him followed. “Of course he was being followed,” Rinder exclaims, exasperated with himself. “I was following him!”
It goes on from there. With her elegant South African accent and patrician good looks, former Hubbard aide Hana Eltringham Whitfield could be a lost cast member of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, while the energetic ex-executive Tom DeVocht comes across like an unusually sympathetic Joe Pesci character. The voice of Spanky Taylor, the former liaison to John Travolta, retains so much of her younger, more naive self’s idealistic vigor others describe that it makes her harrowing story of abuse and child neglect all the harder to hear. And in the instances where interviewees break — when former enforcer and second-in-command Marty Rathbun says he looks at his entire experience in the Church and feels nothing but shame, or when one-time top-level “Operating Thetan” Sara Goldberg describes the pain of choosing to follow her excommunicated son out of the Church, thus getting cut off by a daughter still in good standing — you are watching actual people wracked with regret about their whole adult lives.
Whether real or imaginary, characters come alive when living, breathing humans play parts previously restricted to the printed page. Suddenly, body language, facial expressions, vocal intonation, and other communicative qualities are no longer limited to the few times the author saw fit to describe them specifically — they’re ongoing, unfolding in real time, and impacting every word. For any A Song of Ice and Fire reader who developed a new appreciation for a character simply by virtue of watching a Game of Thrones actor embody them (personal shoutout to Varys, Sansa, Margaery, and Bronn), this is a familiar phenomenon. The experience enriches even the best-written accounts, achieving something straight prose simply can’t do.
In Going Clear, it serves a double purpose. Seeing and hearing the apostates tell their stories adds pathos and power to their accounts, yes. But it also forces us to confront the fact that for many years, these engaging and empathetic individuals were enthusiastic participants not just in their own abuse — the subtitular “prison of belief” — but in some cases in the abuse of others as well. Rinder, Rathbun, and DeVocht all cop to being up to their necks in the Church’s dirty tricks and propaganda, and in the culture of physical assault they allege to have been created by Chairman of the Board David Miscavige, they did unto others as was done unto them. Figures like Eltringham are, in their way, even more baffling. As a close aide to the founder himself and a captain in his small fleet of ships, she witnessed firsthand his mercurial, dictatorial behavior — the unpredictable outbursts of rage, the draconian punishment for infractions that ranged from imprisonment to literally being thrown overboard. Yet she persisted in the “Sea Org” for years, as if the magnitude of her suffering were proof that Scientology was something worth suffering for.
These dichotomies, which Going Clear thrives on, reflect the contradictory character of Scientology itself. Here is a self-improvement system that encourages its adherents to examine every aspect of their lives to an all but obsessive degree, yet forbids even the slightest questioning of the system itself. Here is a religion that says we are all eternal beings with hidden powers that can turn any believer into an unstoppable übermensch, yet demands slavish obedience to its glorious founder LRH and outright abasement before its dear leader DM.
The film, like the book before it, handles Hubbard with fitting complexity. His lies about his life story and his zeal for making money off it are documented in great detail, as are his abuse and abandonment of his three wives and their children, and his gob-smackingly vicious and sophisticated espionage campaigns against internal and external enemies of the Church. He was a fraud, a swindler, an abusive husband, a deadbeat dad, and a small-scale tyrant, and Going Clear in no way goes easy on him. But he was also a key figure in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, a colleague of occult legends Aleister Crowley and Jack Parsons, a prolific short story writer and novelist, an irrepressible raconteur, an irresistible ladies’ man, and massive success as both a businessman and a spiritual guru, if not as a person. In short, he’s a fascinating, filmic figure. Portraying him as a mere huckster would be as lopsided as saying he’s the savior.
And most importantly, he wasn’t just Scientology’s president, he was also a client. While the decision to position his movement as a religion rather than a therapy program was very likely a cynical cash grab and tax dodge, no one seemed more convinced of the truths Hubbard claimed to be uncovering than Hubbard himself. Going Clear makes much of the countless hours the founder spent alone with his “e-meter,” “auditing” himself in a relentless inward journey. The stuff he dredged up then became the basis for an entire way of life, one which he himself adhered to.
In Hubbard’s native territory of science fiction, “worldbuilding” is a term used to describe the way writers construct the elaborate sociopolitical, scientific, geographic, and historical framework for the imaginary world in which their stories take place. In a way, Hubbard may well have pulled off the greatest act of worldbuilding in history. Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien, or George R.R. Martin, or Stan Lee & Jack Kirby had not stopped at merely creating and writing about Middle-earth and Westeros and the Marvel Universe, but overlaid those fictional worlds atop our own until they became indistinguishable not just to their tens of thousands of followers and fans, but to the creators themselves.
It’s reminiscent of Going Clear’s showstopper scene, a Machiavellian game of musical chairs Miscavige imposed on disgraced Church officials to determine their fates, played to the tune of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Going Clear’s central assertion is that in art and life alike, thinking people must make that determination, and must be trusted to do it for themselves. It denies its viewers the certainty Scientology itself promises to provide, which may be its most subversive act of all. Heroes to be worshipped, villains to be eradicated—Going Clear asks us to leave them to the pages of fiction and the fever dreams of fundamentalists. Neither are in short supply, inside Scientology or out.