Greetings again from the darkness. Here’s hoping Tom Cruise doesn’t hunt me down, and that a group of believers doesn’t shout insults at me in an airport; but I’ll admit that the more I learn about the Church of Scientology, the more creeped out I get. Director John Dower and BBC reporter Louis Theroux do nothing to put me at ease or even help understand how people fall for this “religion” … a self-described “universal solvent”.
Yes, Scientology is a religion that was founded by a science fiction writer. The genre has seen many popular writers over the years – Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, H.G. Wells, and Philip K Dick were all great writers, and some were read religiously by their fans. However only one, L Ron Hubbard, had the pluck to actually start a religious cult and consider himself God’s conduit. His 1950 book “Dianetics” is known as Book One and the foundation for the movement that became Scientology.
Mr. Hubbard died in 1986. Twenty-something David Miscavige took control and to this day remains the mysterious leader of the organization. His one TV interview was in 1990 with Ted Koppell on “Nightline” and he has since refrained from public appearances – a stance that has only enhanced the weirdness and rumors surrounding Scientology. Instead, public figures like Tom Cruise and John Travolta have become the faces that people associate with the organization, and have been influential in recruiting efforts.
The extremely polite Theroux takes an unusual approach to this and actually holds auditions for the key roles of David Miscavige and Tom Cruise, with the plan to reenact some of the more infamous ongoings behind the secure walls of Scientology. When the open call for participants hits social media, warnings to Theroux start flooding in – literally cautioning him to stay away from this subject. Undeterred, though maybe a bit shaken (is Paz de la Huerta a bikini-clad spy?), he enlists Marty Rathbun, a former senior leader in Scientology. He bolted after 27 years, and the organization now labels him as an embittered SP (Suppressive Person) and works to discredit everything he says.
Andrew Perez wins the role of Miscavige by expressing the necessary level of “righteous anger” according to Rathbun. The reenactments of Miscavige speeches, the E-meter sessions, and bull-baiting (belittling to build backbone) provide us a simulated peek behind the cloak of secrecy. We learn about The Celebrity Centre, Gold Base, and The Hole – each adding to the creepiness that is difficult to shake.
Three other former Scientologists are interviewed: Tom De Vochts, Marc Headley and Jeff Hawkins. It’s through them that we learn about Sea Orgs – the most devoted of those within the organization. There is also a fascinating tie-in with Mr. Hawkins’ wife Catherine Frazier, who not only remains an active Scientologist, but plays a key role in one of Theroux’s contentious interactions on a road that is either public or private, depending on whom you ask.
Alex Gibney’s Going Clear documentary stands in contrast to Theroux’s almost playful approach to getting information and details out of those who were/are there. Although the playfulness disappears when, late in the film, Theroux confronts Mr. Rathbun on his role in building the structure that he now condemns. We know we can’t trust the “church”, but we (including Theroux) are never quite sure whether to trust Rathbun, or if he is merely out for revenge. It’s rare that a true story can provide such comical moments and yet, at its core, provide such frightening insights. Call it a cult, a religion, an organization, or any other label you prefer … it’s still just downright creepy.