The PJ Tatler

Thinking about Scientology? Might Want to Think Again

That’s the message from a new documentary about the “religion,” being shown on HBO:

There’s a moment early in the HBO documentary Going Clear — a rigorous, damning takedown of the Church of Scientology — when Lawrence Wright, on whose book the documentary is based, explains why he spent so much time and energy on his investigation. “My goal wasn’t to write an expose,” he says. “It was simply to try to understand Scientology.”

Anyone who watches Going Clear will indeed walk away with a greater understanding of Scientology — but that doesn’t mean they won’t be enraged and horrified by it. This documentary, whose convincing allegations have been vetted by 160 HBO lawyers, might well turn out to be the last nail in Scientology’s coffin.

As a piece of filmmaking, Going Clear is engaging but unspectacular. (If anything, the documentary’s style is too on the nose; director Alex Gibney underscores many of the more bizarre bits with an eerie-sounding theremin tune, as if to say, “Get it? This is totally crazy!”) The film’s power is less about the originality of its content, most of which has been public for at least two years, and more about the impact of its form. Going Clear has condensed the original 560-page book into a two-hour movie. There’s never been a version of this story that’s so visceral, so accessible, and so succinct.

If you’ve spent any time reading up on the dark side of Scientology, you’ll be familiar with much of what Going Clear reveals. Of course, that doesn’t make the alleged details any less horrific or absurd: the billion-year contract signed by members of the Sea Org, who are paid 40 cents an hour for their menial labor; the pressure to have abortions because children are an “unpractical burden”; extreme punishments for perceived transgressions against the church, which include cleaning toilets with a toothbrush and cleaning a bathroom floor with a tongue; the stalking and harassment of ex-members and their loved ones, which continues for years after they leave the church; and the top-secret Scientology creation myth, taught only to high-ranking members, about an ancient alien overlord named Xenu who combated overpopulation by freezing his subjects and dropping them into volcanoes.

But while it may not break any new ground, the documentary’s very existence is a kind of coup — a raised middle finger to the Church of Scientology, which has routinely used intimidation and a strictly enforced code of silence to squelch any public criticism.

The show has opened big:

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Alex Gibney’s two-hour exposé on the Church of Scientology, nabbed nearly 1.7 million viewers during its premiere telecast. And while that number is sure to grow once HBO-Go plays, encores and DVR views are taken into account, it already represents the network’s most watched doc premiere since Spike Lee’s four-part When the Levees Broke aired in 2006. (The Hurricane Katrina feature nabbed 1.75 million viewers.)

It should be noted that Going Clear also comes shy of HBO’s 2013 Beyonce doc Beyonce: Life Is but a Dream (1.8 million viewers for the premiere), though that project was, essentially, a concert special.

Freedom of religious belief is enshrined in the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean freedom from criticism of said belief. Some other “religions” might want to think about that.