First things first: Yes, you should still read Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear, which made EW’s top 10 nonfiction books of 2013. Wright goes deeper into the Church of Scientology’s history, explaining its belief system so that it’s easier to understand why so many people were drawn to the religion in the first place. He writes with a calm level-headedness that makes it harder to dismiss the more extreme anti-Scientology arguments made by church detractors in the book. (“Every religion features bizarre and uncanny elements,” he writes.) Yet, even those who’ve already read Wright’s bestseller will find themselves amazed and enraged by the documentary that was inspired by his book.
Directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks), Going Clear charts the church’s growth, its marketing campaigns, and its myriad abuses of power, which didn’t stop when leadership passed from founder L. Ron Hubbard to new leader David Miscavige after Hubbard’s death in 1986. The film builds upon Wright’s biggest allegations: that Scientology facilitated Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s kids turning against their mother, that it vetted and groomed the actress Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland) to be Cruise’s wife, that it allegedly helped squash rumors about John Travolta’s sexuality. Gibney even scores one scoop that Wright didn’t know about: Cruise had Kidman’s phone tapped after she was labeled a “suppressive person.” But Wright covers controversies that Gibney doesn’t, so it’s the rare archival footage from Scientology’s inner sanctum that makes the film stand apart from the book.
None of the rights holders reportedly cooperated with Gibney, so he obtained and used this footage under the copyright terms of fair use. The results are both strangely comic and deeply unsettling. L. Ron Hubbard admits in a 1968 interview that he sometimes questions his own sanity. Scientology leaders are shown high-fiving the same IRS executives they just strong-armed into giving the church tax-exempt status. The scenes of Tom Cruise laughing maniacally in a pro-Scientology video has leaked online before, but that doesn’t make it any less weird to watch him salute a giant portrait of Hubbard while shouting “To L.R.H.!” or stand on stage before a massive crowd, with near-Olympic-sized medals around his neck, while fireworks explode in the background.
Even if Cruise was cut out of Going Clear, though, the personal stories make it riveting, especially when ex-Scientologists reveal what finally made them leave, decades after being lured into the church with self-help philosophy, instructed to pay thousands of dollars in order to advance to a higher consciousness, and convinced to “disconnect” from their families. Only when they’re alone do they learn Scientology’s full credo, and by then, it’s too late to get out. Sylvia Yvonne “Spanky” Taylor describes her escape from the church after finding her infant daughter very sick in a urine-soaked crib, surrounded by fruit flies. Some ex-members report that physical violence is common in Scientology, and some among their ranks would rather willingly submit to beatings than break with the church. Others believe that Cruise knows the church employs child labor through its Sea Org movement and pays workers a pittance while it rakes in the donations. These days, Scientology’s membership is dwindling, down to 30,000 worldwide according to Wright, but thanks to its tax-exempt status, it still has access to $1 billion in liquid assets.
Gibney doesn’t investigate some of the biggest mysteries from Wright’s book, including the disappearance of Miscavige’s wife and the strange death of Hubbard’s son. But maybe that’s for the best: there’s only so much your average viewer can handle. If Going Clear were a Hollywood thriller, I’d complain that it’s too over-the-top. But this is real life, which is hard to believe. And it’s disturbingly good. A