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Believer Beware: The Cost of Going Clear

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Alex Gibney’s new film Going Clear is Tom Cruise’s least favourite Tom Cruise movie...

“A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights.” The flowery words of an egalitarian idealist — or the shrewdly crafted pitch of a salesman looking to hook a big fish? Dianetics author L. Ron Hubbard (the L stands for Lafayette) died in 1986 of a stroke (not, as Saturday Night Live’s recent musical Scientology spoof would have you believe, of pink eye). He didn’t live to see one of his invention’s biggest gets: Hollywood A-lister Tom Cruise.

Not everything looks good under a spotlight.

As the church’s celebrity trophy, Cruise (along with early adopter John Travolta) put Scientology in the spotlight. Not everything looks good under a spotlight. Well lit, Hubbard’s foray into “psychological folk art,” as Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief author Lawrence Wright describes it, resembles a studio backlot. In filmmaker Alex Gibney’s documentary adaptation of Wright’s book, the church’s reported abuse of its members, both current and former, is highlighted. Perhaps Cruise and other celebrities the church aggressively courted have brought it a different sort of attention than it was counting on.

Going Clear is a project the Church of Scientology tried hard to muzzle. Full-page ads purchased in the New York Times accused Gibney of failing to check his facts, labelled the film’s subjects as cyber-terrorists, and, absurdly, quoted Yogi Berra. The plan backfired. The free publicity was the best advertising Gibney could have hoped for but could never have afforded: Going Clear became HBO’s second-most successful documentary, right behind their Beyoncé-directed, Beyoncé-produced doc about Beyoncé. The ads were a six-figure demonstration of how insular, how oblivious to public perception, Scientology is. (When was the last time somebody made an au courant reference to Yogi Berra?)

Leaving the church means losing more than religion.

While Scientology’s antics may be laughable to those outside of the church, inside it’s a different story. Gibney interviews several ex-Scientologists, some famous, some formerly high-ranking officials, about the abuse they say went on behind the organization’s expensive-looking doors — and what happened when disillusioned patrons headed for those doors. The stories are about liberation; but they’re about profound heartbreak, too. Leaving the church means losing more than religion. Defectors say that under Hubbard’s unofficial successor, self-styled chairman of the board David Miscavige, Scientology has developed a strategy for keeping members invested in the church: emotional hostage-taking.

Miscavige has Scientology zeal in spades, and he expects to see that reflected back from the rank and file. Express a doubt, ask an improper question, sneeze at an inopportune moment, and a Scientologist risks being declared a “Suppressive Person” by the church’s higher-ups. SPs are “disconnected,” not just from the church, but from any family members within the church. 

It happened to Nicole Kidman, says one of Gibney’s subjects, referring to the actress’s diminished role in the lives of the two children she adopted with Cruise when they were married. And it happened to Canadian-born filmmaker Paul Haggis, according to Haggis himself as he details his abrupt and unquiet exit from Scientology after more than 30 years. (The Crash writer-director initially broke with the organization over its support for California’s Proposition 8 to prohibit gay marriage, and went on to denounce the abuse he claims he witnessed within the group.) 

And it happened to Marty Rathbun, once a senior executive in the church. Rathbun admits to wiretapping Kidman when he was still a Scientology devotee and one of Miscavige’s top operatives. Now he proffers his own video footage of a gaggle of men sent by the church to loiter outside his house, heckle, harass, and film him and his wife, and to root through his garbage with more enthusiasm than a Toronto raccoon.

What’s a non-believer to believe?

An organization that documents its own harassment of defectors while denying allegations of abuse against current members? What’s a non-believer to believe?

The most surreal moments in the film come in its third act, when movie-star-turned-Scientology-apostle Cruise enters and the strange tale of romance, religion, and church-orchestrated girlfriend procurement unfolds. A story that once made the rounds in tabloid magazines (and Vanity Fair) is corroborated by Haggis: church bigwigs, Miscavige among them, were allegedly tasked with finding Cruise a new squeeze. Current Homeland star Nazanin Boniadi, then a pre-med student, was vetted, audited, and given a Hollywood-worthy makeover for a special assignment: Mission Impossible: Cruise Companion. She lasted a reported six weeks before inadvertently insulting Miscavige and almost immediately being escorted out of Cruise’s Telluride home. 

Cruise’s on-camera ardour for all things Scientology, combined with clips of Miscavige addressing followers with messages that could be outtakes from Buzz Lightyear’s script (“Godspeed, lightning speed, and a quantum leap in sheer rapidity of progress up the bridge!”) give the film a needed dose of levity. In stark relief stand the stories of disconnected church members like Sara Goldberg. Her dilemma — an ultimatum imposed on her by an organization to which she devoted herself for decades — forms the heavy, emotional centre of the film, turning Scientology from a punchline into a warning against what Wright calls “the crushing certainty of believers.” 

Corrina Allen writes for Space.ca, TheComedyNetwork.ca, and Bravo.ca