It’s always interesting when a documentary film maker goes after any religious organization. Organized religion and some of the general stupidity around it usually gives enough ammunition to people that unloading a salvo on most of the world’s major religions is fairly common place at this point. But going after Scientology has been something that has rarely occurred, if at all, because Scientology fights back just as hard.
It’s something that’s admirable in an odd way; when someone punches them they don’t turn the other cheek. They roll with the punch and come back firing. Scientology goes after people who do the same to them in a way that’s profoundly over zealous, I think, but they make no bones about in their mission statement either. So you kind of half to expect them to take a swing if you keep poking them in the chest. It’s like walking into a bar and there’s a guy screaming “I’m going to murder the first midget I see” while slamming a machete against a table. I mean it’s still shocking when a little person gets all corpsey … BUT it’s not like you didn’t know that the psycho was going to do something crazy like that.
This is the same organization that got the IRS to say “no mas” … so at a minimum any film on them is going to be interesting on a purely intellectual level because anyone who does so knows the sort of hell they’re going to have unleashed. The Church of Scientology may be small, with less than one hundred thousand active members, but they don’t take attacks lightly. Which is why Going Clear intrigued me from the get go. Out of all the films that have gone after religious people over the years, most recently Religious and much more interestingly Jesus Camp, the one religious organization that hasn’t had the shotgun turned on them with both barrels in film by name has been Scientology.
It takes someone with brass balls to want to try to pick a fight with them.
It was supposed to be the subject of The Master, apparently. The allusions of “The Cause” were stripped away outright and it was supposed to be nearly identical to Scientology, at least according to rumors. That film was the closest anyone has gotten to taking a look at the religion. It’s always allusions or hints of it as opposed to the explicit naming of. “The Cause” was very similar to it BUT the film was more about the nature of how people can lose themselves looking for something to direct their path in life than about L. Ron Hubbard’s church. It’s close enough that anyone familiar with the CoS knows exactly what they’re talking about … but people who aren’t will presume it’s just a whacky cult led by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
It’s always “very similar” but never referenced in the same way other religions are. Going Clear is a documentary, based off the book of the same name, and is fairly controversial. Alex Gibney comes into the film with a clear purpose: to go after the church and point out its failings.
This isn’t a documentary as it is more of a crusade as Gibney, who could not secure the involvement of the Church, has instead gone on the warpath and gone right after what he perceives to be the abuses of the church. Gibney gets interviews with eight prominent former Scientologists as he turns the film into three parts. The first act is on how each of the former Scientologists all joined. The second is on the history of the Church. The third is the modern direction of the Church, including some of the abuses alleged to have happened in it.
Gibney has a fairly impressive list of people for his film. Crash director Paul Haggis and Chicago PD star Jason Beghe are the most famous, obviously, but Gibney has gotten some fairly high ranking members of the church on camera. Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, both of whom held high positions, as well as former members Sylvia ‘Spanky’ Taylor, Tom DeVocht, Sara Goldberg and Hana Eltringham Whitfield. Taylor was once John Travolta’s handler, apparently, within the Church, and the rest were long time members of the Church who wound up leaving for a variety of reasons. You can Google them all, as well, and can apparently find lots of things out about them that aren’t positive either.
The tales aren’t new or unique; for years plenty of websites and YouTube videos have focused on the stories of those who left Scientology. What’s new is that you have two people who were formerly in the upper echelon as well as two fairly high profile Hollywood personalities going on the record for the whole world to see. These aren’t people who were on the fringes of the church or merely members. These are people who had access to the highest levels of it all and thus we’re seeing it all from the inside out. It’s insight into a secretive religious institution that we’ve never had at this sort of level.
I’m conflicted about this film for a couple of reasons.
The big one is that people going into this film that are talking about it want to act as if that Scientology is the only major organized religion that has done bad stuff. They’re not the only ones and to be fair these are all allegations at this point. I don’t doubt that they’re telling the truth; my instinct is that I know they’re telling it because this is the kind of stuff you generally don’t make up. HOWEVER it’s not what I know. It’s what I can prove. And unfortunately I’m not offered volumes of proof that what they allege (and that’s all it is at this point: allegations) is true. I’ll assume from the positions people were in that it’s true, because my skepticism doesn’t extend that far, but I do have to think that there are potential falsehoods and exaggerations that might exist as well. Scientology is so closed off that a lot of rumors, falsehoods and exaggerations are presented as fact because there isn’t a ton of information about it to verify.
It’s like a Bruce Lee story; you can make up almost anything and people will believe it because they’re conditioned to.
The film also feels damning but without any response from the Church in the film, which I imagine is intentional on the part of the Church, it feels like a group of people just ripping on one person who isn’t in the room for being a jerk. On the one hand you might be right … on the other you are actively torching someone who has no ability to defend their reputation’s besmirching, either. It’s a lose/lose scenario either way so I imagine that going with no statement and no interviews was probably the easier way out.
I get why Scientology didn’t send a spokesman to be interviewed, as this was designed to be a hit piece from the beginning, but without them at least making a statement it feels a bit one sided. It’s why I couldn’t do more than just sort of like this film. Scientology is getting torched and there’s no defense by them, either. To be fair it’d be like a conservative in a Michael Moore film (or a liberal in a Dinesh D’Souza film) in that no matter what they say you’d wonder if it was deceptively edited to make it look as bad as possible … or they’d find the craziest person and present them as the normal level of Scientology practitioner. Either way there’s nothing good that can come from it, so I get it.
Going Clear is a good viewing on television, as XFinity has it on demand among others, but it wouldn’t have made for something I’d recommend in theaters if they’d released it their first.
What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 tall boys of Red Fox and community college co-eds with low standards at the Fox and Hound
The Age of Adaline – Blake Lively never ages. Nor does she gain any acting ability, either.
Skip it – Blake Lively is the female Channing Tatum.
Little Boy – A little kid tries to bring his dad home during WW2
Skip it – This looks so Disney sweet it’ll give you Diabetes.
Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .
Tags: church of scientology, Going Clear, Monday Morning Critic, Scientology