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On HBO: GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF (2015)

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GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF
(US/UK - 2015)

Written and directed by Alex Gibney. (Unrated, 120 mins)

"All Scientologists are full of shit" - actor Jason Beghe, who left the Church of Scientology in 2007.

If you're of the opinion that Scientology is a cult, Alex Gibney's documentary GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF, based on Lawrence Wright's book, will do nothing to dissuade you. Delving into the history of the alleged "religion" and its formation by insanely prolific science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the film gives plenty of information and backs it up with transcripts and first-hand accounts by high-ranking "church" officials who now count themselves among the former members. But even in in-depth conversations with these former members--including CRASH director Paul Haggis and CHICAGO P.D. star Beghe--Gibney often explores the "what" at the expense of the "why" when it comes to what drew them to join. What is it about this organization that persuades its members to give it all of their money? Wright mentions that he studied things like Jonestown and radical Islam, and Scientologists follow that same pattern of fervently-devoted, cult-like thought. Of course, these days, Scientology is synonymous with its star representatives Tom Cruise and John Travolta, both of whom--need it even be mentioned?--declined or more likely never responded to interview requests from Gibney. The Scientology origin stories of both actors are explored here, with Travolta being recruited by "a female actress" during the making of his first film, the 1975 horror film THE DEVIL'S RAIN (she isn't mentioned by name, but it's Joan Prather) and top church official Spanky Taylor being assigned as his handler when he soon blows up with WELCOME BACK KOTTER and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Taylor would eventually become critical of the church and was sent to something called "Project Rehabilitation Force," billed as a retreat for stressed members but, according to Taylor, a prison camp where problem Scientologists are subjected to menial labor and sleep deprivation. She alleges Travolta knew of her predicament and did nothing about it, and that the iconic actor is, for all practical purposes, a prisoner of Scientology.


Cruise's Scientology exploits are even more unsettling than those of Travolta. Following Hubbard's death in 1986 after spending much of the 1970s and into the 1980s in hiding and on the move due to mounting legal problems, the organization has been run by chairman David Miscavige, who's virtually a figure of Mephistophelean evil by the time the end credits roll. And it's not unjustified--Miscavige lobbied hard for Scientology's tax-exempt status, even suing the IRS and individual employees until the government agency caved and granted them tax-exemption, right down to the backlist of Hubbard's science-fiction novels being classified as "religious texts," therefore making the revenue they generate non-taxable. Miscavige and Cruise are shown to have a borderline codependent relationship that was ruined for the better part of the 1990s by Nicole Kidman, who feared that Cruise was becoming too much like Miscavige. When Cruise and Kidman were away in the UK for well over a year working on Stanley Kubrick's 1999 swan song EYES WIDE SHUT, Miscavige, upset that his bromance with Cruise had fizzled over the preceding several years, set in motion a plan to end the Cruise-Kidman marriage by, among other things, getting inside information by having Kidman's phones wiretapped and also through incessant "auditing" of Cruise--"auditing" essentially being rigorous one-on-one "therapy" sessions tantamount to brainwashing the actor into breaking up with his wife. In 2004, Miscavige assigned church member and future HOMELAND actress Nazanin Boniadi to be Cruise's girlfriend (his marriage to Katie Holmes is never mentioned). Miscavige envisioned Cruise to be Scientology's ambassador, and in footage of a gala celebration of Cruise's accomplishments, it's disconcerting to see one of the world's biggest and most powerful movie stars subserviently kissing Miscavige's ass and saluting him.


Gibney delivers the sideshow horror stories but there's still an alarming lack of substance to GOING CLEAR, which is odd considering just how many ex-Scientology big shots are on board, with one former top figure repeatedly being harassed by vengeful members who brazenly show up at his doorstep (they even go so far as to rent the vacant property across the street from his house and watch/videotape him 24/7). There's allegations of physical abuse and virtual slave labor, and one story about a game of musical chairs that reveals Miscavige to be an utter sadist, but it never really gels together. Miscavige and his minions have gone all out trying to trash-talk GOING CLEAR, even launching a bullying troll campaign on Twitter, and while it doesn't disappoint in terms of illustrating just how completely batshit--yet very powerful and financially savvy--the whole organization seems to be, the film never really coalesces into a whole. Why isn't there any mention of Miscavige's wife Shelly not being seen in public since 2007, or that KING OF QUEENS star and former Scientologist Leah Remini filed a missing persons report on her behalf shortly before leaving the church in 2013?  That seems important. Part of this might be that as a filmmaker, Gibney is nearly as prolific as Hubbard was as a writer. GOING CLEAR is the third of five documentary features Gibney's done since the beginning of 2014, with the two-part FRANK SINATRA: ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL airing on HBO next week. That's in addition to two short films for ESPN's 30 FOR 30 series.  All told, he's directed or co-directed over 20 feature-length docs since 2010. While it's nice that the workaholic Gibney keeps himself busy, one can't help but wonder if GOING CLEAR could've been a little more consistent, cohesive, and substantive if he didn't have four other irons in the fire at the same time. Maybe Errol Morris or Werner Herzog should've made this film.




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