What We — and the Church of Scientology — Learned From the ‘Going Clear’ Controversy

After two-plus months of sponsored tweets, film-critic pushback, Google ad buys, and an often desperate attempt at spin control that ultimately did nothing to disprove characterizations of utter control freakery, the Church of Scientology’s worst nightmare came true last night: Alex Gibney’s incendiary and excellent adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s scorching CoS exposé, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, aired on HBO. It proved, true to prediction, a bit of a bombshell, with viewers taking to social media to express shock over the film’s allegations of physical abuse, blackmail, kidnapping, wiretapping, celebrity control and more.

Perhaps the funniest headline of the morning appears over at The Wrap: “Church of Scientology Slams HBO’s ‘Going Clear’ Documentary: ‘Desperate, Ludicrous, Made-Up’ (Exclusive)” BREAKING, BREAKING, OMG YOU GUYS, The Wrap EXCLUSIVELY got the Church of Scientology to slam this movie they’ve been slamming nonstop for three months, alert the Pulitzer committee. Contrary to that goofy headline, the point of contention here is not the film itself, but an interview Gibney gave to the publication last week, alleging threats and harassment by the church against those who appeared in his film.

“They’ve received threats of physical harm, threats of having their homes taken away, threats of being forced into bankruptcy,” Gibney says. “They’re being followed by private eyes and surveilled.”

The Church of Scientology's Los Angeles headquarters

In response, the Church of Scientology told The Wrap, “Alex Gibney is proving to be exactly like the sources in his film – no accusation is too irresponsible to make. It doesn’t matter if he lacks corroboration and proof, it’s all about promoting his movie.” They advise viewers to seek out “the unvarnished truth” at their website (uh huh), and repeat the claim they’ve made since Sundance (to this writer and others) that they offered up 25 representatives of the CoS, and Gibney refused to meet with them.

In an appearance last week on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, Gibney responded to that oft-made claim thus: “I very forthrightly asked the Church of Scientology to give me interviews with some key figures who are currently in the church. They didn’t want to do that, but they presented me, very late in the game prior to the Sundance Film Festival, they said, ‘We’ve got 25 people who are gonna show up and tell you how horrible the people in your film are.’ Now imagine, if somebody were to show up here, like ten seconds from now, and say, ‘We’ve got 25 people downstairs who demand to be on the show, and they’re gonna tell you what a horrible guy Alex Gibney is!’ Would you say, ‘Hmmm, 25 unidentified people who wanna break into the office,’ what would you do?”

If anything (and as many predicted), the church’s relentless spin campaign has done nothing to damage Gibney’s film, and everything to promote it as a must-see object of controversy. “The church would attack the film in its kind of ham-fisted way,” Gibney told The Wrap, “and people all across the Internet were rising up to say, ‘Bullshit…’” Chief among those unsuccessful efforts is their laughable Twitter account, @freedomethics, which boasts, in spite of months of sponsored ads, a mere 630 followers (to put that in perspective, that’s less than half as many as the parody/response account @freeclearethics). Click on any of their tweets, and you’ll find they’ve mostly just managed to reach an audience of really annoyed Twitter users.

Said account spent months slandering HBO, Wright, Gibney, and all of their sources. And then, over the weekend, they suddenly stopped those attacks and took on a new social media strategy: attacking Going Clear as boring:

"Going Clear" criticism from the Church of Scientology

Their ten tweets over the two days before Going Clear’s airtime were all like that: stock photos of people sleeping at the movies (even though, um, most people were going to see it on HBO), alongside such junior high-level disses as “HBOring” and — wait, let me copy-paste so I don’t misquote them — “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz…” So that’s an interesting intellectual pivot: “It’s propaganda! It’s bigotry! All their sources are assholes! No? Um… You guys, it’s super-boring!!! Promise! You don’t want to watch it! PLEASE DON’T WATCH IT IN THE NAME OF XENU.”

The feed has gone quiet since Going Clear’s premiere on HBO last night, and the most recent update to their “Freedom Magazine” page dedicated to the movie is a lengthy (good god, so lengthy) March 19 letter from their lawyer to HBO’s, urging the network to “cancel its sponsorship” of the film, and, yes, it includes a comparison to “Nazi Germany.”

Their attorney also notes author Wright’s “attempt to destroy the religion,” and deems that attempt (and presumably, by proxy, that of Gibney) “doomed to failure.” Maybe, and maybe not. The Week’s Scott Menslow asks if Going Clear could be “the final nail in Scientology’s coffin,” and while the dedication of their most loyal members is probably immovable, that description seems a pretty apt one for their public image. If anything, the film — and the press it’s generated, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the CoS itself — marks what The Daily Beast nails as a “cone of silence” that’s shattered. “Freedom Ethics” may have gone quiet on Twitter last night, but they were about the only ones; regular viewers, actors, comedians, and former members tweeted their shock at its allegations and support for the film.

Once upon a time, the Church of Scientology could operate under a veil of secrecy and celebrity worship. And if we learned anything from Going Clear, as both a film and a media event, it’s that those days are long over.