'Going Clear' Review: HBO's Indispensable History of Scientology

The new documentary, on HBO March 29, covers everything from Tom Cruise to Thetans

Photo: Courtesy Going Clear

Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (premiering March 29 on HBO) is an indispensable general history of the enduringly controversial church. It covers everything: L. Ron Hubbard, Thetans, E-meters, lawsuits and, of course, Scientology’s most famous practitioner, Tom Cruise, recipient of the Church’s Freedom Medal of Valor.

Sensational in content but not in tone, Going Clear has been making headlines since its first screening at Sundance in January. It has also upset that secretive, combative and often embattled Church, which in a lengthy statement attacked the film as “insidious religious persecution by bullies toting cameras” and the ex-Scientologists who participated as “the usual collection of obsessive, disgruntled former Church members.”

According to Going Clear, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific science-fiction writer who in old footage here looks like Bob Odenkirk impersonating the late Conrad Bains, realized early on that the form of therapy he had invented and marketed could find its greatest, safest profitability by being declared a religion, freeing itself from ever having a tax burden. The Internal Revenue Service made that determination in 1993.

By then, Hubbard was dead: He had spent his last years in hiding – because of charges of tax evasion – and letting the details of his life slip into a fog of mystery.

Many of the biographical details that surface here are disturbing: According to written testimony from Hubbard’s first wife, years earlier he abducted their young daughter, stashed her in Cuba with two mentally handicapped caretakers and said he had killed her.

The Church that Hubbard left behind is depicted as a very large cash machine built on the challenging, often fruitless spiritual struggle of the faithful. Money comes in from the Church’s members, as they pay for the “auditing” sessions that will lead them upward to enlightenment. Some Scientologists are also put to manual work: The wage mentioned several times in Going Clear is less than 75 cents per hour.

And some of these people have signed billion-year contracts with the Church!

Vast sums of concentrated wealth watched over in secrecy for many years are not known to contribute to healthy behavior, whether in the case of Howard Hughes, Smaug the dragon or L. Ron Hubbard. The Church, according to Going Clear, maintains obsessive control under conditions of physical and emotional abuse that ex-Scientologists describe as prison camps.

The Church’s sci-fantasy dogma, which was once given a thorough animated depiction by South Park, is really secondary to all this. So, to a large degree, are stories of stars like Cruise being cocooned and indulged: Going Clear includes the alleged incident in which a special field was planted and tilled (and replanted) simply so that he and Nicole Kidman could run through it in what sounds like a romantic fantasy from a Nicholas Sparks book.

In the end, says Wright, “Scientology really is a journey into the mind of L. Ron Hubbard. And the further you get into it, the more like L. Ron Hubbard you become.”

Going Clear airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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