Bart & Fleming: On Alex Gibney’s HBO Scientology Documentary And Tom Cruise

By Peter Bart, Mike Fleming Jr

Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business. 

FLEMING: Before we get going here, I want to let readers know we won’t file a column next week. I’ll be away on a long trip and ask that if you’ve got urgent film news, please email and, as well as me. Onward.

BART: Tom Cruise usually casts himself as the hero in his films, but he’s definitely the “heavy” in a new documentary on Scientology to be broadcast in two weeks on HBO. And his depiction may affect the international box office returns of his new Mission: Impossible sequel, which opens July 31. Paramount, the distributor of this $100 million-plus blockbuster, knows that Scientology is an incendiary issue in Germany and a few other European countries. Will the studio need a strategy to deal with Cruise’s cause, or will it totally ignore the issue?

FLEMING: I must tell you this Alex Gibney-directed documentary left me gobsmacked. It is bold and gutsy, given the history of the church as a litigious enterprise. And an HBO showcase means people will see it way more than they do most docus launched at Sundance. Fueled by Lawrence Wright’s book and the on-camera appearances of several former members who once held high posts in the church hierarchy, it paints Scientology as a whole-cloth invention by a prolific science-fiction writer who, per his ex-wife, succeeded in selling it as a belief system as a way to make money. It reveals L. Ron Hubbard as a teller of tall tales of his own wartime exploits that are worse than what got Brian Williams suspended, and depicts his lifelong mission as a quest to get the IRS off his back (the film says that for most of his life he was on the run from the IRS) by having Scientology declared a religion that would not have to pay taxes. What his successor David Miscavige is alleged to have done with the financial clout gained when the IRS gave in — it is suggested the agency capitulated to erase thousands of lawsuits filed directly against individual IRS staffers — is unconscionable. Miscavige comes off in the film as textbook megalomaniac, ruthless in abusing and manipulating staff to maintain control and exploit celebrity members. While Scientology has billions of tax-free real-estate investments worldwide, the docu claims it pays member workers 40 cents an hour or less. The docu also charges Miscavige consolidated his iron grip by locking his leaders in trailers for exercises in cruelty that sound right out of Guantanamo Bay. Now, Gibney’s film ends with a coda that his attempts to get comment from Scientology were unavailing; their PR maintains that the former members who speak out in the film “admitted committing perjury, suborning perjury and lying to the media.” THR ran a five-page blanket refutation (THR’s Kim Masters is one of the major talking heads in the docu). This column reflects our opinions, and I thought the formers members who spoke out came off very believable, no matter how the Scientology power structure slams them now. Why would they lie?

BART: Going Clear paints Scientology as a multibillion-dollar hustle controlling vast real estate holdings as well as the minds of its followers. Defectors from the “religion” (the IRS officially labels it as such) are effectively imprisoned, physically punished and pummeled with litigation. Several of these battered souls are interviewed on the HBO show. Cruise, along with John Travolta, is a long-term Scientologist as well as a major financial backer to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The HBO doc focuses on Cruise in particular for his almost manic support of the cult-like organization, suggesting that his marriage to Nicole Kidman was systematically undermined by Scientology’s devious chieftain, Miscavige. There are lots of people in Hollywood who personally like Cruise; I am one of them. But I know him on a purely professional basis. He works hard on his roles; he and I have had several delightful conversations on television. He hugs my wife every time he sees her, which she hugely appreciates. But it’s time for a reality check. Cruise again will be seizing the media spotlight in promoting Mission worldwide. And in view of the dramatic indictments of Scientology in the HBO doc, I think he should either resign his membership or deliver a pledge to personally probe Scientology’s offenses, reform its punitive policies and re-dedicate his “religion” to a higher cause. Such as truly helping people, not confiscating their minds. If he is truly the spiritual person he claims to be, then it’s time for Tom Cruise to show some spiritual fortitude: We don’t like him to be the “heavy.”

FLEMING: That would be a laudable outcome, but I just don’t think you can order people how to interpret and react to attacks against their religion. When scandal engulfed the Catholic Church, would you have told me to denounce it? Given the atrocities we see on a daily basis from ISIS, would you tell a Muslim to switch teams? You overestimate the impact this documentary will have on stars like Travolta and Cruise, because they are clearly encouraged to view it as an attack and not pay attention. Paul Haggis, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who seems like a bright guy, spent 30 years in that church and said he never even looked online at coverage critical of Scientology, until he left. He didn’t even realize until after the fact how two of his daughters were emotionally abused by this faith because they were lesbians? How does a father allow something like this happen to his daughters? If Cruise didn’t reconsider his allegiance to the church when his wife Katie Holmes left (reports said she didn’t want their daughter indoctrinated into Scientology), a critical documentary won’t make that much of a difference. I bet he doesn’t even watch it. But that doesn’t mean others won’t watch it and maybe even press the IRS to reconsider what the federal agency has enabled here.

BART: You are missing the point: It is one thing to be an adherent to a faith but it’s another to be its principal spokesman and benefactor. Further, you and I know that Cruise has the intelligence and forcefulness to re-direct Scientology down a whole new path. He has explained to me how, when he was a young man, Scientology gave him confidence and discipline. Well he’s not a young man any more — he’s a very rich and powerful grownup, and he has an obligation to use that maturity to re-direct the institution that he helped create.

FLEMING: I generally avoid the topic of religion with movie stars because it feels like a personal matter. What I know of Cruise is that he is a dedicated producer and star of his movies. He’s always in shape and that takes work as you get older. Whatever he does to gain the discipline and confidence to do what he does, it clearly works for him. No superstar I can think of would have done the stunts he did atop that Abu Dhabi skyscraper for Ghost Protocol. He seems kind and considerate to the people around him and a dedicated father. I have interviewed both Cruise and John Travolta; you can’t judge the way stars behave around a journalist, but they both seemed like pretty nice guys. I honestly don’t know how to balance all this against what I saw in this documentary and how members are abused and ostracized. Those members are audited, a process where they reveal every intimate indiscretion, and that information is stored and potentially used against them. What religion does that? To me, religion is a mechanism that gives you hope and optimism and triggers good things like conscience, generosity, empathy. Just like in governments and business, we’ve seen  people atop religious institutions corrupt the good by adding factors like self-preservation, paranoia, hubris and insecurity. When a faith of any kind forces members to sever ties with family members or persecutes those who leave—described in detail in the docu—it feels to me like a reprehensible act. I am not sure though that Cruise needs to take responsibility for any of this. The docu is fascinating in how it dissects the formation of Scientology, and because of the former church bureaucrats who explain how things were done. Haggis is one of them. One bizarre episode in this film is a segment on how Miscavige allegedly chose for Cruise a girlfriend who was transformed to be a perfect mate. When that effort went awry, she is depicted as being humiliated with tasks that included scrubbing toilets with her toothbrush, though she did nothing wrong. A nobody at the time, she is the actress Nazanin Boniadi, who played a pivotal role in Showtime’s Homeland and is the female lead in MGM/Paramount’s remake of Ben-Hur. This story has a long tail.

BART: As for Paramount, the studio has the right to ignore the whole controversy, which it likely will. Avoidance therapy was always a favored tactic of studio marketers. On the other hand, Paramount has always been tough with Tom. At the start of the Mission franchise, when Tom’s salary demands were deemed excessive, the studio flatly said ‘no’ and, when CAA dug in, Sumner Redstone summarily fired him. The studio refused to sign on to a deal where its star would make millions before it saw any profits. That was a fight over money. If Tom Cruise’s ‘religion’ makes him a financial liability, he can always be ‘fired’ once again. That’s a sobering reality that may impact his thinking.

FLEMING: I recall early on he had over 30% of Mission: Impossible first dollar gross as star and producer, and bestowed some of that when he got first dollar gross directors like John Woo. It was a mission impossible for Paramount to make money on that deal. A more reasonable deal was made when Cruise and JJ Abrams revived a dead franchise with Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol. When Cruise’s career faltered after he jumped on Oprah’s couch, made public comments about Scientology and criticized Brooke Shields for taking drugs to combat her severe postpartum depression, he took responsibility. He publicly apologized and righted his ship. After, he said he learned that his feelings about his faith had their place; he limits discussions about it to proper forums, but mostly he keeps it to himself and doesn’t make it a preoccupation when he is out selling his latest action film. I am speculating here, but I think his career means enough to him that if a Scientology scandal threatened it, he would distance himself or perhaps force the reforms you suggest. I don’t think he or Travolta are architects of the unsavory things in this documentary; Cruise is just the Church of Scientology’s highest profile member.

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