Writer & Director: Alex Gibney
Cinematographer: Samuel Painter
Composer: Will Bates
Ideology is a concept closely tied to conviction, and faith plays a large part in it and in the confirmation of the worldview. In his new documentarian Alex Gibney, who has excelled at the medium and has the Oscar to prove it, has set his sights on what is a low hanging fruit: the church of scientology. This is not to say that the documentary is not well made or a compelling view, because it is – Gibney knows how to get reactions out of the audience and knows how to make a documentary palatable, infuriating, exciting, and with a message. It’s just that this HBO film begs the question as to whether it was a necessary message to be presented in the first place. The film takes a superior tone, and it paints this particular worldview in the worst possible light – but I’ll get to that in a bit.
The structure of the film is interesting, almost episodic in scope. There isn’t so much an over-arching narrative as much as individual aspects of the church, its history, and the system of beliefs are illustrated all to eventually culminate in the wrongs perpetrated by the church and a call for its tax exemption to be revoked – not because it is not a religious entity but because of the fact that its mode of operation is akin to that of a business and not of a religious entity. The film dedicates a significant portion of its first half to the man behind the movement: L. Ron Hubbard. This is by far the most compelling and interesting portion of the film, as it delves into the legend and how such a bizarre character could end up crafting a religious movement that now counts thousands of followers around the world. L. Ron Hub, as his followers call him, was a slightly unhinged former veteran who shifted his attention to the writing of pulp science fiction from which he borrowed what would become the basic components of his focus on dianetics. Once his research went out of fashion with mass audiences, Hubbard adapted these ideas into a mission of faith – one still very much rooted in his sci-fi roots, yet skillfully ensconced behind regulations and red tape that would require commitment and overwhelming involvement from the faithful before it being revealed to them.
Following a biography of its elder and prophet the film focuses on the more visible aspects of scientology that most people associate the religion with: the followers who happen to be celebrities as well. Specifically John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Hearsay takes over the documentary as the interviewees (all former believers who have since left the church) come up with possible reasons as to why the actors continue to be members as well as serving as the most public faces of the church. Interestingly the film does not mention other famous members such as Kirstie Alley, Erika Christensen, Laura Prepon, Kelly Preston, Jenna Elfman, Jason Lee, Beck, Juliette Lewis, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Peña, Giovanni Ribisi, and Greta Van Susteren.
The most compelling parts of the documentary are when the interviewees describe the horrific and troubling experiences they encountered while members – the fact that some former high-ranking officers are part of this group makes the case even stronger. Bizarrely, again, certain high-profile stories are not included in the film, such as Leah Remini’s recent and public ousting as well as the apparent disappearance of Michelle Miscavige (the wife of the church’s current leader David Miscavige) who hasn’t been seen in public since 2007. Either way there was enough to attack and condemn without these items. Corruption, violence, and all-around bad behavior charges are laid on the church and on Miscavige (who was raised in the church and groomed by Hubbard himself). The claims are compelling and convincing, enough evidence is provided that would confirm the message that scientology is a less than transparent organization (pardon the pun, as the highest level a faithful can achieve is what gives the film its title).
There was something, though, that troubled me when viewing this film. The attacks are not only on the way the church may have committed serious crimes, but they are personal and make light of the belief system itself. The filmmakers feel like they are entitled to this given the type of evidence provided – they paint Hubbard as a lunatic, they prey on the followers and it is clear that they cannot comprehend how any person could believe in Xenu, thetans, and the like. Full disclosure, it does sound ridiculous and it is easy to laugh at, but such a reaction is problematic. One needs to make sure that in doing so a door is opened. Most churches are far from blameless. A simple moment taken to recount the horrors inflicted by most religions and its leaders would bring up recent and historical accounts of torture, pain, and corruption (of which we still have the evidence). In addition, the core beliefs of many religions sound ridiculous to an outsider as well. The Church of LDS (a relatively young church) believe that Jesus visited the Americas and that there are multiple worlds and their versions of cosmology would seem baffling to non-believers. Christians believe that a man lost his strength when his hair got cut off, that a city’s walls fell due to soldier’s screams, they believe that crowds were fed with only a couple of fish and some bread, they also believe that frogs rained down from the sky. These are just some examples of moments taken out of context that were used to make a point: faith and ideology are constructions that people ascribe to and many times dedicate their lives to, and to narrow it all down to the most (to some) ludicrous portions negates someone’s belief system and core ideological perspective. It is dangerous to do so because it allows for criticism and ridicule to be turned back onto those doing the pointing, and no one is blameless. I am all for investigating an organization that may be dangerous or that may be being run in a problematic way, but the focus should stay on the actions. Otherwise those who want to portray themselves as saviors or agents of change simply become bullies.