Mark Reviews Movies

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alex Gibney

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 3/20/15 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 2, 2015

We could start here by dissecting the dictionary definition of "religion," but that would be tedious. It's one of those words that we know, even if we can't quote the definition verbatim. It's a concept that's more than what one finds in the dictionary. We have certain ideas of what an organized religion should do for its practitioners, for the local communities in which a particular sect practices, and for society as a whole.

We can agree that a religion should provide for the spiritual betterment of its congregation and to express that idea of spiritual fulfillment by aiding in more corporal matters. There should be some sort of guiding principles that inform a member of the best way to live—for his or her own well-being and for the well-being of society as a whole. We should be able to see the faithful practice those principles within the world. As in every modern endeavor in a capitalistic culture, there's nothing wrong with an organized religion seeking monetary gain to insure the organization's continuation, although one would imagine that any financial profit would be shared in some way with a religion's practitioners and, through its works, society.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief presents plenty of reasons to doubt that the Church of Scientology passes the smell test of what constitutes a religion, even though the organization may fit the dictionary definition of the term and officially be recognized as a religion by multiple countries throughout the world, including the United States. It's fair to say with certainty that the majority of its active members see it as a legitimate religion, just as it's fair to say that those who only see Scientology from the outside have good reason to observe it with varying degrees of skepticism.

I will not judge those who know the core beliefs of Scientology and remain faithful to it, who believe they are doing themselves and society a great service by being a member, who are unaware of the various allegations that have been brought against the organization (not to mention the past crimes certain members have committed in its name), and who have no issue handing over their money to the organization as a means to further themselves on the group's path. After seeing Alex Gibney's documentary, I'm afraid that I do not expect the Church of Scientology to offer the same consideration to its critics—or even those who are just skeptical.

The film is one-sided, but then again, what is to be expected when we learn that the people who are named in the film's various allegations of impropriety declined Gibney's offer for an interview? We get disclaimers in the form of subtitles throughout the film, whenever someone says this person or that person did something. It's always the same: The person's attorney denies that the something happened.

This is ultimately a lengthy he/she-said-they-said argument, although the "they" side is apparently keeping mum. Some might say suspiciously so. Others might say prudently.

We hear the other side—the people who have left the organization after years or, for the most part, decades of membership. What they have to say is equal parts fascinating, disquieting, and downright frightening.

They tell tales of physical and psychological abuse, of possible blackmail, of paranoia that results in the bullying of critics and apostates, of brainwashing and other power grabs, of multi-million-dollar purchases of real estate, and of the potentially unstable man who started it all and who was relatively harmless compared to those in power now. The man was L. Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who, in 1950, published a self-help book that ultimately turned into this religion.

We find out that the core tenets of Scientology are reminiscent of Hubbard's science-fiction writing: a story of how mankind came to Earth after an evil alien overlord froze the occupants of another planet, flew the frozen bodies to Earth on spaceships that resemble commercial airliners, dropped the bodies in volcanoes, and detonated hydrogen bombs to release their spirits into evolving humans on Earth. Again, I'm not going to judge a person who truly believes this, but Paul Haggis, the Hollywood director and a former Scientologist, rightly points out that, before being allowed to learn this creation story, a member must give the church plenty of time and money. The latter is compulsory, and that's suspicious, to be sure.

The film, based on the book by Lawrence Wright (who is another of the film's interview subjects), argues that Hubbard had psychological and legal problems. Its going theory is that what we know as modern-day Scientology started out as either an elaborate scam or a convenient delusion to help Hubbard avoid paying taxes. He even started a navy to stay in international waters. That branch, called the Sea Org, still exists within the church, and the stories of people who were involved in it are the film's most shocking—stories of demeaning physical labor as punishment, a brutal game of musical chairs in a place called "the Hole," and children kept in intolerable conditions as a means of punishing their parents.

To suspect that there's corruption here, one need only see the fireworks-filled, laser-lit celebration on the event of the church receiving tax-exempt status from the IRS (The result, the film says, of a series of targeted lawsuits against the federal agency and its employees brought on by the church in order to avoid its billion-dollar tax debt). There's something not-right about any of this. The ultimate question here is who to be believe: the church that stands to lose millions upon millions of dollars in tax-exempt donations or the people who have nothing to gain but the church's wrath? Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief certainly leads us in one direction, and its evidence is compelling.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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