Sunday, 28 June 2015

Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief (2015) - Movie Review

Scientology is an unfairly marginalised religion that works for the betterment of mankind, and their members are all upstanding moral citizens that do nothing but good for the people.

You think they bought it?

I mean, I’m reviewing a film that is highly critical of the church that sci-fi built (and no, the Trekkies don’t count) that has a well-known reputation for its attitudes towards its critics; at best, this gets astroturfed and all of 3 people will ever read this online, and at worst my horseshoe fetish gets revealed to the public and I am disgraced to the point of never being employed again. Do forgive me if I have a bit of fun while I let my paranoia get the better of me and check over my shoulder constantly for the black vans. However, my need to be critical often outweighs my need for self-preservation, so I’m just going to proceed with the review regardless.

The plot (such as it is): Through the use of interviews with former Scientologists, archive footage including interviews of L. Ron Hubbard himself and dramatic re-enactments of events within the church, this documentary is a look into the Church of Scientology. It details the church’s history, as well as Hubbard’s humble beginnings as a pulp sci-fi author, its 'religious' practices and its treatment of its members, both for good and for bad.

Okay, all jokes aside, Scientology has always been a near-constant mindfrag for me. I grew up listening to jokes about e-meters and thetans and how insane Tom Cruise was (and still is), but at the same time the idea that a movement this massive could sprout up out of works of fiction (again, Trekkies don’t count) legitimately frightens me. So, imagine my surprise when, upon leaving the cinema, I felt I had gained a certain understanding for Scientologists and could actually sympathise with them. The film might not be completely comprehensive, but it is nevertheless highly detailed when it comes to the church’s methods, particularly with the infamous e-meter and the auditing. The way that the interviewees detail their own experiences on both sides of the audit, as well as showing Hubbard’s own philosophies that went into the original Dianetics, reveals something that I hadn’t even considered before: A lot of people equate Scientology to being like any other cult; another Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate that is run and comprised of complete wackos.

However, the really crazy thing is what separates Scientology from those groups, aside from its longevity: Their methods actually work. Sure, the explanations about thetans and engrams are still total cross-eyed badger spit, but the roots of the audits are basic psychiatric therapy, which does work. When Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe and the other interviewees talk about their initial experiences with the church, along with the reasons they initially joined, the film does a surprisingly good job at making the audience understand why they would do so.

Of course, that feeling starts to warp a bit as the film progresses. The film uses the church’s history as its timeline, starting with Hubbard writing his sci-fi stories for magazines, continuing through the popularisation of Scientology during the 80’s and then into the tenure of David Miscavige. As weird as this may sound, while the film doesn’t portray Hubbard as anything to sympathise with, it does do a damn fine job of deconstructing his methods and actions to establish some reasoning behind the church’s tenets, such as the auditing and its heavily critical stance against psychiatrists and psychologists. Hubbard really comes across like a man whose writing was so captivating that he managed to fool himself, so he went on to create a ‘breakthrough’ in mental health and did his best to hide the simple truth that what he did isn’t new in the slightest, even from himself. David Miscavige, on the other hand, looks a hell of a lot like Nicolae Carpathia from Left Behind and has about the same level of moral fibre; the film makes no bones about it. It depicts the history of Scientology as a misguided self-help cash scam that, under Miscavige, evolved into the monster we know it as today and it makes it a point of not putting the blame on its followers but on the ‘clergymen’; where the blame deserves to be put.

The testimonials given by the ex-Scientologists cover a pretty good sample space: Filmmaker Paul Haggis details his scepticism about the church’s patently absurd theology concerning Xenu and all that good stuff but also his willingness to go along with it out of devotion to the church; actor Jason Beghe gives an every-man view of the whole experience, not to mention making for a great scene of him talking about the spokesmen faking their way through appearances juxtaposed with footage of Tom Cruise; Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, both former higher-ups in the organisation, talk about the deeds they committed for Miscavige and just how far the organisation's influence goes; and Sylvia Taylor, former liaison to bigwig Scientologist John Travolta, talks about her encounters with the actor as well as detailing how she escaped the church, making for easily the most dramatically affecting point of the film.

That’s saying something considering how genuinely depressing this film can get, from the footage of indoctrinated Scientologists plainly lying to protect their church to the depiction of The Hole, the church’s version of rehabilitation that makes Orwell look like an optimist. However, there’s something about the choice of interviewees that I can’t help but question: During the third act, there’s a montage of news footage showing that they have all come clean about their involvement with the church prior to this. Not only that, the only celebrities that are brought up when it comes to those that heavily endorse the church are Travolta and Cruise. There’s an unfortunate ‘surface’ feeling to all this, like director Alex Gibney didn’t dig as deep as he could have. An inclusion of one or two people who were less public would have helped, but don’t consider this a mark against the people who actually are in the film as their stories all coalesce to build the story this film wanted to bring forward.

All in all, this well and truly exceeded my expectations. Going beyond simply detailing the church’s history and methodology, which it certainly does and portrays very well, it also manages to humanise the members of the church and help separate them from the higher-ups that are truly worthy of scorn. I always thought it was either richly stupid or stupidly rich people who bought into this malarkey, but through the interviews and archive footage of Hubbard, I actually feel like I have a better understanding of why the whole process would be ever be appealing; that, and it revealed that even the church’s members didn’t take the whole Xenu thing seriously in the first place. This film may have forever ruined my ability to listen to Bohemian Rhapsody, Staying Alive and Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) without cringing, but it is nevertheless a very well-done piece on the church; major props to editor Andy Grieve for some truly masterful editing work here and to Gibney for bringing everything together as well as he did. If you have even a passing interest in Scientology, or cult mentality in general, then I recommend checking this one out.

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