Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2015. HBO Documentary Films, Jigsaw Productions, Sky Atlantic. Screenplay by Alex Gibney, based on the book by Lawrence Wright. Cinematography by Samuel Painter. Produced by Alex Gibney, Matthew Slater, Kristen Vaurio, Lawrence Wright. Music by Will Bates. Production Design by Rob Locasio. Film Editing by Andy Grieve.
Alex Gibney’s expertise at uncovering subjects in a more dynamic and exciting manner than one gets from most other infotainment somewhat hits a wall with this expose on the Church of Scientology that, as HBO documentary president Sheila Nevins explained, was pored over carefully by a team of lawyers to ensure there would be no retaliation from the organization being scrutinized. No legal cases came forth, but the Church did make its feelings known when film critics received emails asking that official responses to what they referred to as “Gibney’s propaganda” be included in their reviews. The film’s best sections are up front, providing background on the Church’s origins and a biography of its founder, former science-fiction writer and war veteran L. Ron Hubbard. Inspired by his breakthrough theories of self-guided psychological catharsis that he called “dianetics”, Hubbard wrote his ideas down and tried to get them accepted as medical treatment but was rejected, leading him to turn his discovery into the foundation of an organization that grew into a movement with an international following, which then grew into a religion, a status that was pursued not long after Hubbard began receiving trouble about not paying his dues to the IRS. Tax trouble would dog him for life, and according to interview subjects in this film, inspired the creation of the “Sea Org” which saw the increasingly popular leader remaining afloat in international waters to avoid his legal woes.
Timing is everything, and Hubbard began a movement just after the second World War, a time when many were in need of a way to organize the emotional chaos in their minds enough to believe in the value of making a better world, his tenets for mentally “clearing” oneself of impediments to individual success very attractive to his adherents. Those who continued up the ladder of achievement eventually found themselves at a top secret clearance level where the less practical aspects of the religion were revealed to them, including Hubbard’s belief in past civilizations, Theytans and the tales of alien invasion that would find their way into his novel (and later film adaptation) Battlefield Earth. Many former Scientologists, some of whom were raised in the Church from a young age, seem only too happy to appear before Gibney’s camera to talk about what they know about Hubbard (in some cases from having met him before his death in 1986), and how they feel the church has changed since having been taken over by Hubbard’s near equal as an outsized and volatile personality, David Miscavige.
Once we leave Hubbard’s biography behind the film gets a bit scattered, Gibney is too responsible to let innuendos hang in the air but is clearly kept from relaying a lot of information without the rock solid proof that will ease his lawyer’s nerves, so bits and pieces of data are dangled in your face without being given proper follow-through: John Travolta’s possible deal with the devil, Tom Cruise’s willing exploitation as a high-profile celebrity mascot for the religion (?), abuses both physical and financial of many of its members at Miscavige’s urging, and the punishments doled out on those who try to leave the organization. In short, nothing new for anyone who has ever read an article about Scientology written by an outsider; you might learn details that you didn’t previously know, but your opinion coming in will be the same coming out, nothing here will rock your world. As always with this filmmaker, of course, the time spent on the subject flies by in a flash, and the quality of interviews (and their genuine proximity to the leadership of the church) still makes this a worthwhile if not explosive film.