Film

Spoiler: In HBO’s Tough-Minded Going Clear, Scientology Looks Pretty Awful

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The familiar tale of the billion-dollar rise of L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi self-help religion-like philosophy/prank/cash-suck gets urgent, stylish treatment in Alex Gibney’s HBO doc, a fleet and surefooted account of Scientology’s origins, Hubbard’s years at sea escaping U.S. taxes, and the misery and harassment faced by the church’s apostates.

In this case those include director Paul Haggis, ex-second-in-command Marty Rathbun, and onetime Travolta-wrangler Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, whose efforts to take her child from a church nursery and escape her life of barely paid hard labor is here a tale of heart-clutching suspense. Lawrence Wright, whose book offers the film its reportorial basis, observes that there’s no way John Travolta and Tom Cruise can’t know about the slave-like conditions that the church’s “Sea Org” workers are subjected to, contracted as they are for, literally, a “billion years.”

In the film and at a recent roundtable hosted by the Times, Wright calls on the celebrities to join Haggis and actor Jason Beghe (wonderfully funny, here) in speaking out against the church’s abuses. Gibney’s film has won press for its revelations regarding Scientology head David Miscavige’s efforts to break up Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman. But what’s most troubling here are the stories of individual believers lured in with the face-your-demons promise of auditing, and then instructed to “disconnect” from the rest of the non-believing world — and only told their faith’s origin story after chucking away thousands of dollars.

Augmenting his talking heads with animation and inspired stock footage, Gibney dignifies Hubbard with the capacity to conjure feelings of connection and magnificence, never losing sight of what brings people into the fold, which makes their attempts to escape it all the more harrowing. Still, the richness of detail of Wright’s book is lost. Bit I missed the most: that after waiting months for back pay, staffers had to spend much of their earnings on lavish birthday gifts for Miscavige, a man who once honored his rank as captain of the Sea Org by having blue vests with epaulets on them made up for his dogs.

Going Clear plays March 29 on HBO.

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