HBO documentary 'Going Clear' tackles the question: Why Scientology? (w/video)

One of Scientology's signature buildings at its Pacific Area Command Base in Los Angeles is sometimes referred to as "Big Blue.'' [Photo by Sam Painter, HBO documentary "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"]
One of Scientology's signature buildings at its Pacific Area Command Base in Los Angeles is sometimes referred to as "Big Blue.'' [Photo by Sam Painter, HBO documentary "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief"]
Published March 29, 2015

Eight minutes and 13 seconds into his much-talked-about documentary on the Church of Scientology, writer-director Alex Gibney hits a sweet spot, going right at one of the key questions he sets out to answer.

What is Scientology's allure?

Jason Beghe, an actor who lasted 13 years in the church, is describing his first Scientology service — a drill that made him confront another person face-to-face, eyes closed. He says it made him "go exterior," or out of his body.

"It was a transcendent experience for me," Beghe recalls in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

"And that made me go, 'Holy (expletive), this is — wow!' "

The same could be said of the two-hour film, which addresses the controversies of recent years as well as other big questions: Why do people stay in Scientology, and why do they leave? It does so while hewing closely to Lawrence Wright's similarly named and widely heralded book, published in 2013.

Going Clear holds the power to connect with a range of audiences: Many critics of the church will find it validating. Casual observers will be engrossed, perhaps enlightened. And Scientologists loyal to church management will be highly offended.

In addition, Tampa Bay area residents familiar with downtown Clearwater, the church's spiritual hub, will notice numerous scenes that take place at Scientology landmarks. And many will recognize familiar faces, particularly the church executives who left the organization several years ago and first spoke out in "The Truth Rundown," a 2009 investigative series by the Tampa Bay Times.

Gibney serves up Wright's sweeping take on how L. Ron Hubbard invented Scientology, the church's years-long battle with the IRS, its scandalous spying on government offices in the 1970s, its embrace of celebrity culture, its fantastical belief system, the rise of its current leader David Miscavige, his bold engineering of a game-changing settlement with the IRS, the church's aggressive fundraising, the top-level defections of recent years, and, finally, the resulting allegations of Miscavige's abuses, which in recent years have led many long-time parishioners to leave Scientology.

Along the way, we hear a raft of allegations — all strongly denied on a church website that decries the film as inaccurate, bigoted and sloppily sourced. No current church official is interviewed in the film.

Former church executives Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder allege that counseling files containing intensely personal information about parishioners are sometimes mined for information used to subtly blackmail those who might leave the church or speak out against it. In this way, the film suggests, celebrity Scientologist John Travolta was held "captive," unable to leave.

Another allegation: That Miscavige became concerned in the 1990s when it seemed Tom Cruise's commitment to Scientology was wavering, and that he ordered Rathbun to ease him back into the fold and keep him happy. According to Rathbun, this involved bugging the home phone of Cruise's then-wife Nicole Kidman. Later, according to Gibney, who cites FBI files as his source, the church secretly selected a young actor, Nazanin Boniadi, to be Tom Cruise's girlfriend and recruited her for the role, initially without her knowledge. Then, after their relationship took hold, church officials engineered a breakup because Boniadi rubbed Miscavige the wrong way. The story was first reported by Vanity Fair in 2012.

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Whatever viewers make of these celebrity stories, they are a slice of a much larger narrative about the ways Scientology controls its members, a major theme of Going Clear, and a facet that has been heavily detailed and widely corroborated in court testimony and media reports over the years.

Scientology presents a much different view at Church-produced videos offer testimonials from members describing Scientology as a major force for good throughout the world. They say theirs has been a bright, fulfilling experience, available nowhere else.

But scores of former Scientologists have their own story, having practiced the religion or spent decades working for the church. It often begins with the kind of seductive experience described by Beghe. But at some point, many are repelled by constant demands for money, the strong bias against dissent, an "ethics" system that closely polices their lives, and a "disconnection" practice that threatens to break up their families and friendships if they say anything negative about the church or dare to leave.

"What I take away from it is that we lock up a portion of our own mind; we willingly put cuffs on," Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis says in Going Clear's final moments. As a long-time celebrity Scientologist who publicly left the church in 2009, Haggis is one of the film's strongest voices, attempting to explain why people stay even after seeing things they don't like.

His answer, echoing others, is that you rationalize, telling yourself there must be something wrong with you if you harbor doubts.

"So I can't damn these people who aren't coming out, who are hiding once they come out because they are ashamed," Haggis says. "I feel the same shame."

Gibney and Wright, who is one of the film's producers, suggest Travolta, Cruise and other big stars should be well aware of Scientology's underside and have a responsibility as celebrities to speak out.

Wright says that, with no internal structure to hold Miscavige accountable, there are only two ways to change Scientology's behavior. The IRS could rescind its tax exemption, he says, or "some of these celebrity megaphones could turn against the church, and Tom Cruise should be leading that chorus."

Contact Thomas C. Tobin at Follow @ThomasCTobin.