There was no conspiracy. There was no fear of repercussions. When HBO Canada failed to air Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (Sunday, HBO Canada 9 p.m.) at the same day and time as HBO in the United States, the reasons were mundane.
It's a documentary, not an HBO series or movie, and in Canada it was scheduled to screen at festivals and in theatres before airing on TV. A simple issue of contract and intellectual property in the separate territory that is Canada.
Still, the amount of grumbling about the matter and the copious online commentary suggesting either conspiracy to protect Scientology, or fear of pushback from the church, was revealing. It underlines how the public's picture of Scientology has become saturated in weirdness. Anyone who covers the entertainment industry has felt the weirdness for years. There are actors who will bolt if any mention of Scientology arises during an interview or press conference. And not just Tom Cruise and John Travolta. A question about a strange casting decision on a TV show will be answered by an insider's nod-and-wink suggestion that a bunch of Scientologists on the show hired another Scientologist.
Going Clear doesn't answer all your questions about Scientology. It explains a lot. And it's far from the sensational exposé that some people imagine. Filmmaker Alex Gibney (who also made the great docs Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) is simply methodical. The gist of the doc is finding answers to three questions: Where did this contentious religion come from? What are its core beliefs? And why does it attract so many people in Hollywood?
It paints a devastating portrait of L. Ron Hubbard, the sci-fi writer who cooked some sci-fi ideas into a religion. A troubled, charismatic man emerges, a con artist turned therapist. And yet, when the doc deals with the matter of those celebrities who have embraced the Church of Scientology, a good deal of the lure of Hubbard makes sense.
There is nobody more insecure than an actor in mainstream entertainment. Some can turn their insecurities into great performances. Many exist in a permanent state of anxiety. Scientology offers them succour and security. As we're told about the core beliefs, it becomes clear that the long – and expensive – journey to enlightenment is a safety net for people who are in a permanent state of apprehension. Hubbard's great act of cunning was in spotting where a great mass of deeply insecure people live and work.
It is the tactics of the Church of Scientology that shock – the bullying, the fierceness of the isolation techniques and the blithe interference in personal and family relationships. One realizes that, like so much of religion, hatred of others and the diminishing of non-believers is a vital element.
In the end, after listening to the stories of those who embraced Scientology and then left, it's not a sense of outrage that viewers are left with. It's sadness.
Yes, there is a lurid quality. A former high-ranking official claims he was tasked with expediting the breakup of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's marriage in order to get Cruise back to the church's clutches. Another interviewee says Travolta is "the church's captive." Paul Haggis talks about leaving Scientology and what he witnessed.
Yet, now that all of us can see the documentary on TV in Canada, the defining impression is of deep melancholy. A sadness about the vulnerability that allows people we admire to sink into the depths of fear and loathing inside a church that, like many, resembles an extortion racket. There was no conspiracy, no fear of repercussion that prevented Going Clear from airing earlier in Canada. But what it's about, in the end, is a church steeped in conspiracy and fear of repercussion.
Also airing this weekend
Among a slew of new and returning reality shows there are two bound to be popular with people who want to escape urban life, but from the safety of the couch. Mountain Men (Sunday, History, 9 p.m.) is back to present men "more prepared than ever to do battle against Mother Nature, but unpredictable extremes force them to find new ways to adapt or die." And Power & Ice (Sunday, History, 10 p.m.) premieres: "Three companies fight to keep power flowing in the remote, frozen Alaskan wilderness; extreme locations, avalanches and the constant threat of electrocution stand in their way." Escapism at its best, if that's your thing.