With good reason, the average American’s documentary film consumption has exponentially grown in recent years. The advent of streaming services such as Netflix and HBO GO, and exceptional documentary series such as ESPN’s 30 for 30, have ushered in a new era of excellent options for the inquisitive viewing public.
HBO Film’s latest effort, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, is a prime example of the gripping, absorbing nature of a well-crafted documentary. It is a must-watch piece of filmmaking and is culturally important to boot.
Tracing the history of the controversial “religion,” and featuring personal, emotional accounts of life in the cult of Scientology from former members, the two-hour documentary is a devastating critique of an organization that was previously off-limits from public criticism in Hollywood. Director Alex Gibney has a very specific, unapologetic point of view in Going Clear and, truth be told, it is a thoroughly convincing one.
Here are five things that I learned from watching his provocative, eye-opening film.
1) Smart people join cults too. Paul Haggis is one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood today. He is a bright, intelligent, creative talent. He won back-to-back Oscars in 2004 and 2005 as a producer and screenwriter for Million Dollar Baby and Crash (the latter of which he also directed). He also was a committed member of the Church of Scientology for some thirty years, living a life wholly uncritical or inquisitive about his own religion and its public practices.
Haggis plays a central role in Going Clear and straightforwardly recounts his journey from spiritually searching young man in Toronto to embarrassed former Scientologist. He acknowledges that today, with hindsight, he feels silly for the role he played in (and money he donated to) an organization that so quickly attacked and abandoned him the moment he voiced concerns about the way Scientology was being run.
You do not have to be a knuckle-dragging militia member living in the woods to be deceived by what turns out to be a cult.
2) Humans crave being part of something bigger than themselves. Whether you are winning Oscars like Paul Haggis or driving a bus for the city, we all want to be a part of a group—especially one that we think can help us deal with life’s most difficult challenges and questions. For all of the “Do your own thing!” chatter we hear from slick Nike marketing campaigns, we ultimately want to bring our individuality into the fold of a community where we feel safe and valued.
This is a big part of what attracts us to everything from our local church to the Cross Fit class we cannot stop telling our co-workers about. It is why there are watering holes here in Los Angeles that, come Football Sunday, proudly designate themselves as a “Chicago Bears” or “Seattle Seahawks” bar.
The key distinction between a healthy community and an unhealthy one, it might be said, is if that group that allows you to retain your individuality and celebrates what you bring to the table.
3) Tom Cruise and John Travolta have some explaining to do. While no one person should ever be held fully responsible for all that their religion might say or do, Cruise and Travolta have been outspoken public ambassadors for the Church of Scientology over an extended period of time. In Going Clear, a persuasive case is made that both world-famous actors are aware of the mistreatment and abuses that the Church has perpetrated on hundreds (if not thousands) of people during their own time in the religion.
Sure, anyone can cut together any footage of a public personality’s life and make them look silly. And yes, I did not personally witness all of the horrific things that former members of Scientology claim they experienced (and that Cruise and Travolta are aware of). But these guys have willingly put themselves out there as the faces of a controversial organization and the wall of silence emanating from the movie stars on these serious allegations is deafening. That, in my opinion, is odd.
I will not be able to watch a Tom Cruise movie the same way ever again.
4) Beware of great spectacle, pomp, and circumstance. I have a general rule that I like to live by: the more that a group, political party, or nation feels that they must put on great spectacles to convey their “greatness,” the less I want to have to do with said collection of people. The crazier the parade, the creepier the spectacle, the higher the soldiers marching kick their legs in unison, the more you should worry about the intentions of those who planned such an exhibition.
Scientology’s current (and long-time) leader, David Miscavige, seems to be obsessed with such things. Many times throughout the documentary we see giant ballrooms (or even basketball arenas) decked out in opulent, Greco-Roman style décor while triumphant chorales sound and flag-tossing dancers prance around the stage. It is weird. It is over-the-top. It almost feels like something from a science fiction movie about where aliens plan a rally based on what they think humans would like to see.
Watching John Travolta lead a room full of adults dressed in tuxedoes in the singing of “Happy Birthday” to a portrait of the long-since-passed L. Ron Hubbard speaks for itself.
5) Saturday Night Live makes the best parody videos. Here is SNL’s take on the anthem (and corresponding music video) that Scientology produced in the early 1990’s. Enjoy!