"My Goal Wasn't to Write an Exposé": Reviewing Going Clear

Michael Utzinger

Alex Gibney's HBO documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (HBO, 2015) aired to the public on 29 March 2015.  My students in alternative religions this semester were quite in tune with the controversy surrounding the Church of Scientology and Gibney's documentary, which had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015.  News reports say that when the film finished at Sun Dance, it received a standing ovation.  A quick Google search of "Going Clear" immediately makes the controversy clear: the top two links (paid ads by the Church of Scientology) that attempt discredit the film.  The Third link is also paid ad bought by HBO trying to pedal its wares.  My students tell me that the film trended on Twitter.  All of us who teach alternative religions or new religious movements will have to contend with this documentary for some time, if for no other reason because of its popularity and/or notoriety.

Gibney's film is based upon Lawrence Wright's book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013; paperback Vintage, 2013).  [Reviewed by Jonathan Den Hertog here] Wright's credentials as a journalist are impeccable, having won numerous awards for journalism including a Pulitzer Prize for his book Looming Tower:  Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006).  Going Clear was a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Award.  The documentary condenses much of Wright's research, but, on the screen it packs a visual punch.  This is not to mention that a video documentary very likely reached a younger demographic Wright's book ever did.  (At least, I can say that none of my students had read Wright's book, even though it was a New York Times Best Seller, but they knew about the documentary.)  Wright is interviewed to lay out the goal of the film.  He notes that he has studied Jonestown and radical Islam and wished to ask the question about religious individuals: "Why do they believe one idea rather than another?"  He continues:
There are often good-hearted people, idealistic, but full of a crushing certainty that eliminates doubt.  My goal was not to write an exposé.  It was to understand Scientology, to try to understand what people got out of it.  Why did they go into it in the first place?
These questions are the heart of the documentary as they were for Wright's book.  Wright, in fact, is a guiding presence throughout the documentary.  He explains and interprets the footage and interviews the viewer sees.  In this sense it is better to understand him as a collaborator with Gibney rather than simply a "talking head."

The documentary begins with ex-Scientologists, Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe, and Sylvia "Spanky" Taylor explaining why they became interested in Scientology.  Their introductions are juxtaposed with David Miscavige, the current leader of the Church, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.   Haggis, Beghe, and Taylor come across as naïve inquirers in the face of Miscavige's inspiring 2013 declaration:
We're out to make every life extra ordinary.  And, if by chance, it ever seems laborious or a sacrifice, then you are looking at the off ramps instead of the highway.  You're missing the signpost the one that reads: Next Stop Infinity!
Following Miscavige's speech, we see a clip with John Travolta, paraphrasing L. Ron Hubbard, stating that his favorite ideas in Scientology are " a world without criminality; a world without war; and a world without insanity."  Then Tom Cruise proclaims, "These are the times we will all remember.  Were you there?  What did you do? ... To RLH!"

Why did they join?  As a young man, Haggis wanted to save his marriage.  Jason Beghe said he had a transcendent experience using the techniques of Scientology. Spanky Taylor was in high school and wanted superpowers. All noted that auditing sessions made them feel better, even euphoric. During the first half of the documentary, the story of ex-Scientologists are woven throughout the story of the Church's founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Gibney portrays Hubbard as energetic, prolific (he is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of books ever published--over a thousand), and enterprising, while unstable, prone to violence, and paranoid with illusions of grandeur. This profile is primarily created using available news footage intertwined with critical and negative recollections about Hubbard from Sara Northrup, his second wife. The Northrup material was not used in Wright's book, so it is hard to evaluate this source in the documentary. Hubbard's wish to make Dianetics into a religion is investigated as well as his trouble with the IRS.  (Oddly, no mention is made of the FDA, where Hubbard's documented problems with the government began). Wright notes that Hubbard's science of Dianetics was dismissed by the American Psychological Association as "psychological folk art," while Northrup's recollections say the Church's founder surrounded himself with sycophants, saw himself as a god-figure, and hoodwinked gullible people. This, of course, raises the question again: why do good-hearted people get involved with beliefs that Gibney and Wright make clear are so problematic? 
Beghe: "You get stuck into it.  It is so strong that it sticks to you like glue.  And there's no way you can get away from it."

Hana Eltringham Whitfield (an ex-member of the Sea Org):  "Spellbound" ... "He had us emotionally captured and held, right there in the palm of his hand where he wanted us."
With each step into the documentary, it becomes clear that whatever attempt to "understand" Scientology becomes secondary to the "problem" of Scientology.

As the documentary introduces the secret, esoteric doctrines of the Church (which I will not detail out of respect for a religion, which wants its doctrine to remain secret), the ex-members universally become incredulous, which raises the question: why did they stay?  Upon learning the secret doctrine, Haggis exclaims, "What the fuck is this?"  Whitfield uses terms like "mind control" and "cultic manipulation." At different points, Wright evaluates the thought of L. Ron Hubbard: "He had the ability to fabricate those amazing tales [in his science fiction writing] and transported those imaginary stories into his theology."  Or again, the creation of Scientology was a "form of self-therapy" for Hubbard.  Wright's conclusion: "Scientology really is a journey into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard. And the further you get into it, the more like L. Ron Hubbard you become." This statement would surely have agreement with any practicing Scientologist, except that the Hubbard is portrayed by Gibney and Wright less as religious visionary, entrepreneur, and bricoleur than a paranoid and delusional tyrant.

Not surprisingly, the second half of film turns to David Miscavige, the current leader of the Church, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise. From this point, Gibney's film becomes less a documentary than an exposé. We meet ex-Scientologists Tom DeVocht, Mark "Marty" Rathbun, Mike Rinder, all once in top positions within the Church.  These individuals allege abuses within the Church at the hands of a ruthless Miscavige.  The audience is introduced to terms like SP (suppressive person), PTS (potential trouble spot), fair game, and disconnection.   Ex-Scientologists claim to have been held prisoner in "The Hole," something the Church denies.  Sea Org members allegedly work for slave wages.  The Church is accused of participating in illegal child labor, human trafficking, and aggressive character assassination.
A particular spotlight is placed on the Church's tax exemption from IRS as a religious organization.  In the film, Wright considers "how do you define a religion?"  Rather than thoughtfully consider what is at stake in such a question, a question that it crucial and compelling, he stops short of any penetrating analysis, simply noting that the IRS is the only opinion that matters.  There is no acknowledgement that the IRS could never define "religion" without almost certainly raising First Amendment issues.  The IRS's guidelines, therefore, are necessarily loose.  Worse, says Wright, accountants and lawyers, who are not theologians, are ill-equipped to answer these questions.  Yet Gibney does not introduce to the viewer any scholars of religion, theologians, or legal experts on church and state.  One suspects that the reason behind this can be found in Wright's book: "serious academic study of his [Hubbard's] writing has also been constrained by vindictive reputation of the church" (445).  Tom DeVocht claims "it is a crime" that Scientology can hide behind First Amendment protections.  In the end, Gibney notes that the IRS "surrendered," and Marty Rathbun claims the tax exemption allowed the Church to amass and extort a tax-free fortune from its members.  Travolta is given a similar assessment.  Spanky Taylor claims that he knew about her alleged abuse at the hands of church officials, yet, in the words of Wright, Travolta "was the Church's captive. ... He had the opportunity to affect the behavior of the Church and chose not to."  Tom Cruise is the focus of particular invective.  "No one," says Wright, "has benefitted more from his membership" than Cruise. 

By the end of the film, the intent is clearly no longer a documentary to understand Scientology but a spotlight on a religious organization which the film maker claims has "no checks and balances." Wright makes clear to the viewer what can be hoped: "The IRS could reconsider its tax exemption,"  or "some of these celebrity megaphones could turn against the Church. And Tom Cruise should be leading that chorus."  The film ends with ex-Scientologists expressing their regrets and embarrassments for being part of the Church with Theremin music in the background to leave the viewer with a zany feel.

This film has merits.  The footage, none of which, I presume, was provided by the Church, is stunning in its breadth. One should watch the film for this reason alone. Watching Hubbard speak in his own words is quite compelling.  Seeing the filmed victory celebration after the Church received its tax exemption from the IRS (although it has been posted on the web for years) is thrilling to see, as is watching David Miscavige salute the portrait of LRH and exclaim, "Sir, Done!"  Gibney scrupulously noted when John Travolta's or Tom Cruise's publicists denied allegations made in the film or when Church members refused comment or interviews.  One is also certainly drawn into the pathos of ex-members stories, and it is hard to ignore their obvious pain and regret.  One should also not miss the courage it took Wright and Gibney to write and film their projects, when the Church has a well-known and public reputation for litigiousness.
However, one should not confuse compelling stories and courage for depth of understanding. One also need not ignore allegations of abuse to recognize lack of balance. Journalistic approaches to religion, while they can be penetrating and interesting, often do not have the type of analysis necessary to explore what is at stake for the academic study of religion or a particular religion's intersection with the legal, political, and social contexts in which it functions.  Alas, while the film gives us the raw material for such a discussion, it does not provide it.  So, while Gibney and Wright certainly need not take the Church of Scientology's self presentation at face value, they ought to have looked at the testimony of ex-members with an equally critical eye.  The film ultimately lacks a sophisticated critical lens along the lines of Hugh Urban's recent The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton, 2011). Urban's book has been reviewed several times on this blog, and my goal here is not to review it again.  Suffice to say, it is remarkably even-handed, and does what we all hope to do in our research and in our classes: contextualize a religion historically and culturally; balance a hermeneutics of respect with a hermeneutics of suspicion; weigh the ethics of studying Scientology's intentionally secret doctrine, even though it is widely available; and, perhaps most important, determine what is at stake in being called a religion or not in our culture.   I wish the film had done more along the lines of Urban's book. I was left longing to see what the film intimated it would explore: to try to understand Scientology and why people went into it in the first place. Instead, we are left with an exciting film more like an extended  A&E Biography piece with a moral charge to the IRS, Travolta and Cruise, rather than a careful discussion or balanced approach to the sorts of issues I would expect to cover in my classes.


professorjeffwilson at: June 14, 2015 at 4:37 PM said...

A colleague (with strong NRM studies credentials) and I saw it in the local theater recently. We too were disappointed with the lack of analysis. The opening question of why someone would join (and stay in) a group like this excited us, but the follow-through was a let down. Imagine: what if there was an academic discipline that had been asking, researching, and answering this question for decades? What if there were a slew of qualified experts in this area, any one of whom could have provided fascinating and enlightening insight to the filmmakers had they but asked?

John G. Turner at: June 14, 2015 at 8:31 PM said...

Great review -- much appreciated!

I had students in a class this past spring read Going Clear. They had just read Edward Curtis's book on the Nation of Islam. I thought it would be fun and illuminating to compare genres, but I think the approaches were so far apart that it was frustrating for my students. A representative from the Church of Scientology came and fielded questions, which helped balance things out somewhat.

At the same time, exposes (sorry, can't do the accent mark) do have a place in the study of religion. They are valuable sources, whether one is studying 19th-century Mormonism or contemporary Scientology. But we shouldn't expect them to be scholarly studies.

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