Before I even begin, I have to give the “Church” of Scientology some credit. I really do. In the year 2015, with literally billions of people connected to the Internet in SOME way or another, they have managed to retain a surprising amount of followers. And by surprising, I mean any.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is HBO’s latest blockbuster documentary that’s been making waves over the past few months ever since it was first shown to audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Director Alex Gibney had previously worked on another documentary that I’d seen (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), so I was pretty familiar with his style of filmmaking.

I’d known a good bit about Scientology before viewing this film based off of rumor, Internet searching, and coverage by the media and press (yes, I’ve also seen South Park’s legendary episode). Despite all of this, I’d never really thought about the specific beliefs and goals of the Church of Scientology, and the only times I’ve ever felt the need to look into the organization is after a new Tom Cruise movie where the majority of critics and reviewers write something along the lines of, “Say whatever you want about Cruise’s wacky off-screen antics and questionable beliefs, but this man can act!”

Going Clear tells the story of both the history of Scientology and the man who invented it, L. Ron Hubbard. The way the film is structured revolves around testimonies and interviews with former members of the Church, including officials, followers, and family members. It’s one thing to hear statements like, “Scientologists are lunatics who believe in aliens and Top Gun,” but hearing the stories told from the mouths of former Scientologists was a bit surreal for me because, again, I only had cursory knowledge of the topic prior to viewing the film.

In addition, I felt that the documentary was legitimized by the large number of high-ranking members of the church who have since spoken out against the Chairman of the Religious Technology Center, David Miscavige (while he is not the “head” of the church, he is widely accepted as the most powerful individual in the Scientology movement who took control following the death of Hubbard in 1986) as well as the church’s practices and teachings. Marty Rathbun, who was essentially the person who was second-in-command in the church’s leadership hierarchy, sheds some light on a number of extremely controversial issues that have come to light regarding techniques that were used to both coax individuals into buying into the program (pun intended) and physical and emotional pain inflicted on members of the church.

Much of the information in the film has already been discussed before, especially considering that the book that inspired the film adaptation, Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, goes into much more detail than the film itself. However, the film excels due to its straightforward and organized layout that acts as a way to bring the casual viewer up to speed (I’d say the “casual viewer” someone who knows that it’s a weird religion and that there are a bunch of buildings in Los Angeles with Scientology affiliations). The first half of the movie focuses on L. Ron Hubbard’s life as a science fiction writer, an officer in the US Navy during World War II and the father of modern-day Scientology. There is archival footage, photographs, and interviews with Hubbard as well as interviews with the dozen or so interviewees that the director features who became involved with Hubbard’s scheme in one way or another. The second half switches gears roughly around the time of Hubbard’s death, honing in on the rise of David Miscavige’s leadership and the incredible battle between the IRS and the Church of Scientology as members fought for religious distinction in order to avoid having to pay over $1 billion in taxes that they owed the US government.

It also helps that over 160 lawyers [link no longer active] vetted the film to make sure that the information that was presented was virtually impenetrable in terms of authenticity. The Church of Scientology has notoriously feisty lawyers ready and willing to go the extra mile to sue anyone that poses a threat to their way of thinking, so it’s understandable that HBO would take such precautions. It’s also a reason why there are some “known” aspects of Scientology that the film doesn’t even approach, such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holms’ marriage, that are particularly susceptible to the church’s wrath.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “You haven’t really mentioned Cruise and Travolta…They’re the only reason why I know anything about the whole Scientology thing!”

The story of Tom Cruise and John Travolta’s involvement in the Church of Scientology is spread throughout the film, with particular attention given to Cruise. While neither of them were interviewed specifically for Going Clear, there is enough archival footage and interview material to paint a complex and often bewildering picture of each celebrity’s affiliation with the church. Director Alex Gibney argues towards the end of the film that Tom Cruise could actually be the key to shaking up the entire Scientology operation if he were to renounce his membership and speak out against the church because of how crucial he was in their major push for new members and more donations in the early 2000’s. Unfortunately, by the end of the film I had the feeling that while Travolta may be still involved in the church because of form kind of dirt that they most likely have on him, Cruise is way too far gone to be able to come to his senses and get out any time soon. Which is a shame, because I would love his movies so much more.

That sounds a bit selfish, but come on. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Edge of Tomorrow were awesome, but almost every one of my friends said that they just can’t get past Cruise’s personal life. Just try and watch this clip of him winning Scientology’s “Freedom Medal of Valor” award (or as I like to call it, “A simulation of a modern day Third Reich”), or this famous interview where Cruise goes completely insa…..actually, I don’t really want to spoil that one. Both of these videos are featured in the film, and both suggest that Cruise may be a lost cause at this point.

By the end of the film, having heard from leaders in the Church of Scientology as well as members who eventually left and family members who had to experience the devastating feeling of being “disconnected” by relatives, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Church of Scientology, which many refer to as a cult, was able to gain so many members at a time when the Internet was starting to spread around the globe. For many, the Internet is a source of almost limitless knowledge, shining a light on controversial issues and offering a multitude of perspectives on issues. But Scientology encourages its members to avoid the web, ignore the filth and propaganda that seeps from every site, and fight tooth and nail to defend the church and punish those who dissent (many of whom chose to dissent after finally hearing opposing viewpoints that fly in the face of the church’s logic).

I would me more willing to understand the existence of something akin to Scientology if it had materialized prior to, say, the year 1930. However, in this day and age I simply cannot understand how individuals can be even remotely intrigued by an organization that doesn’t even share its core beliefs about how and why we are here until you’ve paid an exorbitant amount of money and spent an incalculable amount of time being interrogated by “auditors. It’s just so, so ridiculous, and it’s both relieving to see former followers speaking about their experiences and extremely frustrating to see that there are still thousands of people who will abuse and harass those who have left the church.

By the way, the person being harassed in that video is Mark “Marty” Rathbun, the former high-ranking executive in the Church of Scientology that I’d mentioned earlier and one of the key individuals that Going Clear focuses on.

The Church of Scientology does have its own media outlet, called Freedom Magazine (how ironic), and they do post regularly on current event topics and news from within the church. With the release of Going Clear, however, the site has taken on a defamation campaign aimed at almost every individual who either left or quit the church and played some role in the making of the documentary. They even went so far as to create INDIVIDUAL WEBSITES for each of the so-called “discredited sources,” each starting with (here is the Church of Scientology’s website for Jason Beghe [link no longer accessible], one of the key interviewees in the documentary). It’s an elaborate strategy used to try and smear each and every person that Going Clear uses to legitimize the statements being brought forth, one that shows that the church is not only good at hiring ruthless lawyers but is tech savvy enough to know that saturating Google’s search pages with propaganda sites is bound to at least confuse potential audiences of the film and book.

It’s a film that will truly haunt, amaze, and totally creep you out, and it will make you wonder how an organization so wacky, so bonkers, has been able to accumulate over $1 billion in liquid assets and has managed to win over the hearts and minds of celebrities and ordinary citizens around the world. While Going Clear (both the book and film) may not mark a complete watershed moment in the downfall of the Scientology movement, which has been on the decline in recent years, it certainly helps to enlighten the general public of the dangers of such organizations and will undoubtedly expose it for what it truly is: a manifestation of the strangely persuasive mind of Mr. L. Ron Hubbard.

If you want to read a bit more about the role of the Internet in the Church of Scientology, The Atlantic recently published an excellent article explaining how the church has worked to control the flow of information coming to and from the church itself. Author Sophie Gilbert writes,

During recent weeks, Scientology representatives have emailed critics who’ve written positive reviews of the film to state that it’s filled with “bald-faced lies,” and to chastise them for not reaching out to the Church for comment. The Church has also paid for sponsored tweets alleging that Gibney is “HBO’s resident propagandist,” that Rathbun “beat ‘best buddy’ Rinder to pulp,” and that Rinder (who, like Rathbun, appears onscreen) “‘vice-gripped’ his wife of 36 years during assault” and “tore chunks of flesh” from her arm. The tweets link to the website for Freedommagazine, a Scientology publication—specifically, a special report about Going Clear that alleges the film glorifies “bitter, vengeful apostates expelled as long as thirty years ago from the Church.”

Hopefully the book, film, and increase in public knowledge of the specifics behind the Scientology operation will lead to some form of change either in the form of even steeper membership declines or through direct action. Maybe the IRS can revisit the tax exempt status of the church if more concrete evidence comes out that money has been misappropriated or something, though in any case there are bound to be more lawsuits than I can even imagine if any government agency opts to go that kind of route.