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Originally published Friday, March 27, 2015 at 11:26 AM

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HBO’s ‘Going Clear’ details Scientology’s theater of the surreal

The documentary, based on Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article and book, suffers a little from too much information and too little depth, but it will likely astonish/enrage quite a few viewers.

The Kansas City Star (TNS)

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Scientology won’t be destroyed when “Going Clear,” filmmaker Alex Gibney’s documentary, airs at 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 29.

Unlike another recent HBO documentary project, “The Jinx,” “Going Clear” probably won’t lead to the high-profile arrest of an eccentric millionaire.

And that’s too bad.

The movie version of “Going Clear” does manage to distill Scientology — the celebrity-infused, money-driven spiritual movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1950 — down to its most objectionable practices. Aided by its source material (New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s 2011 article and 2013 book), Gibney’s film explains a bit, too, about the movement’s appeal, mostly by speaking with former believers.

Why would these seemingly thoughtful, intelligent people sign a billion-year contract to work for pennies a day? Why would these clear-eyed Americans cut off their families, divorce their spouses and leave their children based on the work of a science fiction novelist?

The answer rests with “auditing,” the therapy-esque sessions Scientologists undergo with the assistance of another church member and a device called an E-meter, sometimes referred to as “one-third of a lie detector test.”

It starts out as a glorified self-help program, designed to make recruits more effective communicators and creators. Auditors ask questions like, “Can you remember a time when your mother denied you love?”

Auditing lets Scientologists work through troublesome memories (some from past lives) until they aren’t sending negative energy through “cans” of the E-meter. Meanwhile, it’s all being recorded and written down, so that every Scientologist has a collection of files in what’s called a “preclear folder.” If you try to leave the church, those files can be used against you.

The documentary leaves out some of the church leadership’s more frightening misdeeds detailed in its source material, but Gibney nonetheless talks to so many expats that “Going Clear” never has time to go very deep with anyone.

The stories of ex-Scientologists, like the memories of survivors of many other insular sects, oscillate between infuriating and terrifying. And what Hubbard himself called Scientology’s “space opera” mythology of “Operating Thetans” pushes its reputation far into the most fantastical corners of recent history.

In one of the most gripping scenes in Wright’s book, former Scientologist and Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis recalls receiving the secretive “Operating Thetan III” documents, kept in a locked briefcase that was lashed to his arm. Like every other Scientologist at this rung on Hubbard’s ladder of enlightenment, he had invested years and many thousands of dollars before he was deemed ready for OT III.

Inside a locked study room, he opened a manila envelope and read the handful of pages, scrawled in Hubbard’s own hand.

This is the story Hubbard called “The Wall of Fire,” the tale of Galactic Confederacy overlord Xenu; of interstellar DC-8s dropping frozen people into Earth’s volcanoes; of hydrogen bombs and alien souls that cling to humans and harm us.

After a few minutes, Haggis returned to the supervisor.

“I don’t understand,” Haggis said.

“Do you know the words?”

“I know the words, I just don’t understand.”

“Go back and read it again.” In a moment, he returned. “Is this a metaphor?” he asked.

“No,” the supervisor responded. “It is what it is.”

Haggis’ journey into and out of Scientology could have made a fascinating film by itself, and he’s just one of a dozen articulate talking heads.

Having too much good material to work with is a problem Gibney has faced before: In “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” he tackled the Roman Catholic Church’s culpability in child sex abuse scandals.

But “Mea Maxima Culpa” didn’t have the candid perspectives that “Going Clear” gets from the likes of former top lieutenants like Marty Rathbun, who performed the extensive auditing that put Scientology poster boy Tom Cruise near the top OT levels.

Men and women who escaped from the highest levels of Scientology under current church leader David Miscavige describe bloody beatings, many delivered directly by the leader. Multiple witnesses have described Miscavige, who barely clears 5 feet, flying across a conference table during meetings to strangle Scientology department heads in their seats.

Some ex-church members, whose problem is more with Miscavige than Scientology itself, are taking what they learned and offering auditing outside the church’s purview. This makes them what the church calls “squirrels.”

Squads of Scientologists wearing cameras on their heads harass these “squirrels,” banging on their doors and wandering their neighborhoods in hats and T-shirts reading “SQUIRREL BUSTERS!”

Back at Scientology headquarters, Miscavige sometimes makes people salute his beagles, who wear sweaters with naval insignias. It’s that kind of absurdity that nearly obscures the horror of what can happen to the church’s inner circle.

In one instance, high-ranking church members were forced into an abusive marathon of musical chairs while Queen’s greatest hits blasted. Some call it “The Bohemian Rhapsody Incident.”

Visually, “Going Clear” relies too often on the quiet imagery of a needle bouncing around an E-meter. But that is probably because Scientologists are not exactly forthcoming with footage.

Clips of some of their training videos do make it in, for yet more surrealist theater. The vertically challenged Miscavige is front and center in Scientology’s “We Stand Tall” music video, part of the celebration of victory over the IRS in 1993.

That’s right: Scientology is recognized by the United States as a legitimate religion, with all the First Amendment freedoms and financial benefits that status affords.

Snapshots of the awkward high-fiving between Scientology’s scoffing henchmen and the gray-suited IRS negotiators who settled with the church for $12 million are some of the most enraging images in “Going Clear.”

Though it’s admirably light on salacious celebrity revelations, “Going Clear” alleges that Miscavige would monitor Cruise’s auditing sessions and mock the actor’s sex life. (Miscavige was best man at Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes.)

Ex-leaders also claim that John Travolta’s preclear folder was used to threaten him when he wanted to leave the church.

But it’s Miscavige at the center of “Going Clear,” Miscavige who made the marketing video of Cruise cackling in a black turtleneck, Miscavige who approved the daily footage from the set of “Battlefield Earth,” Travolta’s Hubbard-based sci-fi flick.

Miscavige’s vaguely named Freedom Magazine has been busy during the run-up to “Going Clear.” Every ex-Scientologist featured in the film has his or her own little hit piece on Freedom’s website, with titles like “Sara Goldberg: Crocodile Liar” and “Marc Headley: The Soulless Sellout.”

After years of targeting its external enemies and extorting its own members, the organization excels at smearing people.

But presenting itself in the public eye as a legitimate religion instead of an unhinged cult of greed? That’s another story, and it’s just going to get harder after “Going Clear.”

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