I’m going to be 100% honest from the outset. Not only had I forgotten about being assigned to write a reaction to HBO’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, I’d also forgotten the film was scheduled to air on HBO last night until my Twitter timeline showed promoted tweets from Freedom Ethics, an account created by the Church of Scientology specifically to counter and refute the claims made against the church by Alex Gibney’s tell-all. So, in other words, HBO’s Going Clear is a documentary attacking an institution so stupid that it has unwittingly created the documentary’s most effective ad campaign.
I have been and continue to be fundamentally disinterested in this subject. Granted, that disinterest disappeared momentarily in the opening segment of the documentary. I was a bit stunned by a room full of modern Scientologists standing to salute and worship a giant photographic portrait of L. Ron Hubbard. I’ve always found it bizarre in theory, but it’s even more bizarre to see practiced: These are people saluting an actual photograph in religious gesture. The author of Dianetics and the founder of the resulting Scientology religion, the details of which extend back to the beginning of the universe, lived in a time that allowed him to be photographed. L. Ron Hubbard did television interviews in a car salesman’s tuxedo. He drove a car. He made phone calls. He typed religious text on electric typewriters. And thousands of people paid him to be accepted into this belief system. Nevermind that Hubbard’s military records show no signs of his being blind or crippled, while his claims to being cured of those conditions while in the military were the foundation of his religion. The aesthetic of his invented belief system and his prophetic position within it seems so diluted by his living side-by-side with believers that there really isn’t any explanation, even retroactively confessed stupidity, that might make me wholly excuse those who sign the contracts of participation.
That’s why, for me, the most troubling and effective segment of this documentary has nothing to do with the institutional practices of an obviously corrupt and dangerous institution, but rather the short discussion on the domestic abuse within Hubbard’s marriage. Hubbard’s wife was once assaulted with a .45 for smiling in her sleep and, when she threatened to leave him, Hubbard kidnapped their baby, flew to Cuba, and called his wife to tell her he’d chopped the child up and thrown her in the river (which turned out to be a lie). My reactionary meter spiked higher here than in any of the other segments of the film. To your average, level-headed American, domestic abuse is a real, everyday problem in our culture that requires widespread awareness and action. Scientology is a cultural circus-show that we can only witness.
Yeah, I know. There’s a complex psychological slope that must be navigated when dealing with any relationship or institution built upon abuse. And to a degree, that’s the field we’re playing on here. These followers, both former and current, are of a damaged and vulnerable mindset and that mindset is being exploited for financial gain through criminal levels of control and manipulation. Almost every talking head within this film gives some anecdote or glazed-over description about the emotional and mental comfort offered by Hubbard in the sales pitch of his absurd theories and practices. There are familiar faces — John Travolta, undeserving Oscar winner Paul Haggis — and new faces whose names will be quickly forgotten, and all of them wear their spiritual weakness on their sleeves.
Is it upsetting? Sure, to a relatively minor degree, but that doesn’t make the whole cinematic exercise less weird or more valuable. I’ll accept that that assessment might render me unpleasantly judgmental, but in return, I just ask anyone tell me what other reaction is available to be had here. Most exposé pieces of any microscopic social concern shape themselves toward some call to action. But of what value is Gibney’s sausage factory perspective? What can I do as a middle-class citizen to assist these wealthy church members in escaping the clubhouse that they’re continually paying for?
Call me crazy or apathetic, but I don’t see a solution here outside of a reasonable government intervention and a degree of expected intellectual accountability from these rich white motherfuckers who are cutting checks to fund this institution. The current American moment is one so full of injustice that Scientology isn’t even on my radar. I can’t personally do anything about this central issue and I don’t think this film expects me to.
At least for HBO, the weirdness is the selling point. The goal is to net viewers through specific details of general absurdities that we all already knew existed. Your average citizen knows that Scientology amasses millions or billions of dollars, but we might tune in to see specific numbers or to see first-hand the strange scene of thousands of attending Scientologists cheering in a lavish auditorium as Hubbard’s heir David Miscavige announces that the IRS will never be allowed to touch that money again. Your average citizen knows of Hubbard’s passing while being subjected to his own designed treatments, but we might be intrigued to see the eerie eulogy offered to a crowd of oddly gleeful worshipers. And we all know of Tom Cruise’s prominent position within the structure, but we will absolutely tune in to hear specific testimonials about the A-lister.
I held out hope until the third act, waiting for some big reveal that might stimulate my concern, but it never came. Just an absurd showdown between the escaped members and the current establishment, a showdown which, as I mentioned earlier, was already playing out in more entertaining terms on my Twitter timeline. So, in the end, I watched to confirm what I already knew. The Church of Scientology is weird and corrupt. But because that information is so useless to me, it lands me right back where I started: completely disinterested in this subject.
Featured Image: HBO Documentary Films