THE BLOG

Alex Gibney Takes on Scientology

03/27/2015 09:03 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

Alex Gibney is a master documentarian of the American scene and master provocateur. He's made films about Enron, torture practices of the United States, Lance Armstrong, and child abuse in the Catholic church. So when he takes on the hot button topic of Scientology, attention must be paid.

The great mystery probed in "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief" - screening March 29th on HBO - is how and why this religion, church, cult -- call it what you will -- has attracted legions of followers, many apparently intelligent and rational, while inviting them to believe that the source of confusion and sadness in humans is really floating alien souls inside us. On hand in the film to speculate on this conundrum is Lawrence Wright, author of a definitive book on Scientology, along with erstwhile members of the church who have defected. Most express incredulity at their own credulity, and try to explore - with varying degrees of success - their reasons for joining the church.

For some it was the personal aura and conviction of founding father L. Ron Hubbard, with his dyed-looking orange hair and alarmingly mouthy smile. (You can see what inspired Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film "The Master," though Hubbard is scarier.) Hubbard originally wrote sci fi pulp fiction, named for the cheap paper it was printed on, featuring unlikely heroes in outer space. Gibney's film convincingly demonstrates how many of Hubbard's farthest flung sci fi fantasies became tenets of Scientology.

It also reveals how, after being sued, the IRS concluded that Scientology is a religion and therefore not subject to taxes. This coup, which stocked the church's coffers, was master-minded by David Miscavige, leader of the Church of Scientology. He appears in the film exhorting the troops in settings evocative of Nazi rallies.

Scientology's hook for American seekers - some would call them suckers - was that with the help of an "e-meter" and "auditor," you could discharge upsetting and crippling emotions, many of them memories from the past (loosely interpreted to include, say, the 19th century), and attain a "state of clear." In effect, Hubbard created a kind of pop psychoanlysis, while endowing it with mystical overtones and conveying to his acolytes that he was a savior and hero.

Figuring prominently in the film is Tom Cruise, long a celeb cheerleader for Scientology. It's been rumored he pays thousands of bucks to have aliens pulled out of his body, and, the film suggests, he's held captive through threats to expose his sexuality. "Going Clear" reveals how the church went so far as to pry him away from his wife, Nicole Kidman, then create a "girlfriend," quickly dispatched after she'd served her purpose. John Travolta, another poster boy for the cult, maintains that he can "control energy, space, time and matter" with Scientology.

While these two dudes might not be the sharpest knives in the drawer, it's more mystifying to find that Paul Haggis, director of "Crash," was a scientologist for thirty-five years. Haggis comes on in the film like he's still puzzled by how he could have gotten schnookered into signing on to a theocracy that resembles sci fi. His only explanation is that he got high without drugs and essentially used the church for psychotherapy. Other defectors from Scientology express shame. You fear for them. In a Q & A Gibney stated that not only has he himself gotten a lot of blowback - the people he interviewed have been physically and financially threatened, as well as surveiled in their houses. The church plays a head game, says Gibney, by destabilizing you through mental harassments. "Going Clear" is both a brilliant expose that blows the lid off these practices, and a portal into the darker side of America's fetish for self-help.