Before even discussing the film, I need to write a little about the vibe surrounding this Sundance Film Festival screening: It was absolutely bananas. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my (admittedly modest) four times at Sundance. Security was tight, because the ex-members of Scientology who were in the film and featured in the movie still fear for their safety.
The documentary itself doesn’t just pull punches, but delivers steroid-enhanced blows. Going Clear has one “clear” message: This is an evil and vindictive organization.
The film does explore L. Ron Hubbard’s early days — starting as a lowly writer making a penny a word, to writing Dianetics, a book that would make him wealthy. Eventually, that money dried up, so Hubbard took the next step and turned his book into a religious movement. As the years passed, Hubbard would then become delusional, paranoid and likely insane.
David Miscavige would then become the face of Scientology, as he still is today. And Going Clear doesn’t shy away from presenting Miscavige as a monster prone to blackmail, along with emotional and physical abuse. Often standing next to Miscavige in footage (he refused to be interviewed for the film) is Tom Cruise.
A good portion of the film focuses on Scientology’s most famous members, Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Travolta is the more sympathetic of the two; coming off more as a man trapped by what the “church” knows about his private demons. Cruise comes off terribly as a man who is well aware of the abuses going on — Scientology keeps a prison type facility known as “the hole” at one of its many bases — but does nothing to help. And that the people assigned to work for Cruise are paid very little to accommodate his every need.
Most fascinating is the testimony of Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis, who very publicly left Scientology in 2009. He gives fantastic insight into why anyone would put themselves through such an ordeal — how it’s a bait and switch. You’re lured in with talk of self help, then, after investing a fortune, you learn about the more ridiculous components of the organization, like Xenu. (Haggis explains that when he first read this, he assumed if he bought into it he might get kicked out for being gullible or stupid.)
One of the biggest revelations is that Scientology is really low on members these days, hovering around 50,000. Thanks to tax exempt land deals, though, the church is more wealthy than it’s ever been. It’s presented as a shell of a very profitable scam.
Going Clear is a game changer as far as how Scientology will now be forever viewed culturally. The shift will happen from “bizarre and strange groups about aliens that Tom Cruise talks about” to something much more nefarious. A lot of this information has been out there, but never delivered so precisely and so devastatingly.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.