If the fiction film Timbuktu tempts you to punch a Muslim until you recall that a Muslim made it, Alex Gibney's HBO documentary expose of the Church of Scientology leaves you with fewer reservations about your desire to punch a Scientologist. You'll most likely want to punch a specific Scientologist: David Miscavige, the successor to founding father L. Ron Hubbard and the Stalin, it would seem, to Hubbard's Lenin. As portrayed here, Miscavige is a sinister twerp with none of Hubbard's lunatic charisma but plenty of dead-eyed will to power. Hubbard himself looks like a classic American mountebank, though he looks and sounds even more like that creepy "Friendly Angel" of that Star Trek episode. Like a figure possibly out of one of his own pulp fictions, Hubbard's face looks like a map of his character or lack of it. Gibney tells the old story, which Scientologists have struggled to discredit, of Hubbard telling folks that founding a religion was the way to make a fortune, but concludes that the old man came to believe his own buncombe, perhaps as part of a decline into paranoia. Nothing seems inspired or spiritual about Miscavige, but spirituality isn't what makes Scientology a religion. Actually, a campaign of harassment against the IRS made it a religion for the purposes of tax-exemption, but Going Clear suggests that Scientology is a more orthopractic than orthodox faith, defined less by Hubbard's mad mythology than by the constant practice of auditing for personal regulation and discipline.
The most alarming thing about the show was the resemblance it exposed between Scientology, and by extension many of the more notorious cults, and the totalitarian political movements that were its contemporaries. This became most clear when Miscavige was shown waging a kind of Cultural Revolution against his peers in the "Sea Org," the Scientology elite. He subjected them to a regime of constant auditing and humbling menial labor, much as those Chinese who ran afoul of Chairman Mao or his Red Guards were subject to constant struggle sessions, compulsory self-criticisms, menial labor -- and much worse, of course. Like the Marxist Leninists, Hubbard saw his revelation as a key to salvation, but salvation in each case required submission to unceasing self-surveillance and constant accountability to guides and guardians. Scientology promised empowerment, hence its continuing appeal, but as is often the case with religion or ideology empowerment came from submission, often to an abject extent, to an unworthy master. Yet the sympathy you might feel for the victims may be tempered by recalling that they were all of the elite that bilked the real rubes out of millions, if not by now billions of dollars. As in 1984 a special terror was reserved for those in the Party, so to speak, while the proles mostly went about their stupid lives. How much those suffered who merely bought copies of Dianetics without throwing thousands away on advanced study is hard to say. The show itself quotes Scientology advising such small-timers not to worry about believing all the mythology as long as practice improves their lives. For many if not most, Scientology is probably no more than another form of self-help, perhaps with special appeal for ambitious entertainers who look to John Travolta, Tom Cruise and others as models of success, while viewers of Going Clear may find those two more contemptible than ever. That this racket could also inspire terror in virtually political fashion makes the story of Scientology farcically tragic, but if my own reaction is typical you'll neither laugh nor cry but rage at what you learn. You'll want to see Miscavige in the stocks, or ridden out of some town, any town, on a rail, preferably in tar and feathers. Going Clear is one of the most infuriating movies I've seen in some time, but for once I'd like to compliment the director for getting me that way.