Two Men and a Church – Alex Gibney’s Going Clear

Going Clear

Film | Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief | M


Documentary maker Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room was an acclaimed piece of film-making applauded for exposing the hubris and contempt for ordinary citizens that lay at the heart of one of the greatest financial scandals of the 21st Century.

What remains remarkable about the film is its sense of intimacy. Gibney is our guide to the double-dealing, con-artistry and sheer arrogance of Enron executives Skilling, Lay and a host of other figures each eager to reap massive profits.

In Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief Gibney takes the same forensic approach, presenting stories and reports of the evolution of Scientology from the early days of L. Ron Hubbard’s self-help book Dianetics to the celebrity-endorsed megachurch of today. Interviews are conducted with former members of the Church, up to and including former lieutenants of the current leader David Miscavige.

It is hard to ignore though, just how similar the stories of Enron and Scientology are. Both documentaries are about organisations openly hostile to government regulation. Both films also concentrate on the issue of money. With Enron it was the fake inflating of company stock. Scientology’s major conflict with the US government centred on the taxation status of the religion.

Ultimately these are both stories about powerful men. In that respect Going Clear is a film of two halves. The first traces the life of L. Ron Hubbard from his time as a science fiction writer to public figure claiming to have discovered the secret of good mental health. The other his ambitious successor Miscavige and his rise to power.

Where Going Clear succeeds best is in humanising its interviewees, the former members of the Church who now number among its critics. There is a sense of post-60s idealism in the likes of Hollywood director and former Scientologist Paul Haggis recalling happily asking the man offering him a personality test to take him to the nearest Scientology centre. Sure, why not, I’ll give it a try.

These were men and women who came from a generation au fait with general theories of psychoanalysis, not to mention the growing popularity of Eastern philosophies and personal enlightenment texts. Hubbard’s apparent process of identifying and extinguishing painful personal memories fits neatly into that trend of individualist reflection.

Hubbard then vanishes from the film – which Gibney notes by presenting footage of Miscavige coming on stage to announce that the Church’s founder has moved on to “an exterior state”. The void left by Hubbard is shown to be filled by his protégé, who concentrates on cultivating further ties with Hollywood and lobbying for a tax-free status.

Particularly fascinating is the use of language by the former members interviewed, as well as in sourced footage of Miscavige and Tom Cruise. Terminology and jargon, presumably drawn from Hubbard’s writings, are utilised like modern-day shibboleths. Haggis mentions in passing that he had not read any literature or articles critical of Scientology until he had his own break with the Church regarding the sexuality of his daughters.

Apparently there is little availability of this information to members, or their reading of the many articles online is strongly discouraged. As with the use of jargonistic language, the intent is to exclude and isolate outside elements.

Again where Gibney is clever is in featuring only testimonials from former members and not journalists or commentators external to the life of the Church. It gives Going Clear a sense of authenticity that previous reports have lacked.

Much of the material presented in this documentary may be familiar to those who have followed the growth of the Church of Scientology – but hearing it confirmed by people who lived and breathed the doctrines of Hubbard for most of their adult life has an added punch to the gut.

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