(Photo: Getty Images)
From a public relations perspective, Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary Going Clear was devastating to the Church of Scientology. It was a 50 megaton airburst detonated overtop of Scientology’s big blue HQ on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. In the age of social media, it’s difficult to imagine even the most tender of naifs being wholly seduced by Scientology from here on out. Those already within Scientology likely didn’t watch the documentary, were they even aware of its existence, but it’s a safe bet that Going Clear and the pop culture buzz surrounding it will represent a very serious crisis for future Scientology recruitment. Will the film bring about the end of the Church of Scientology? That remains to be seen, although it feels as if it certainly marks the beginning of the end. Maybe the millions the organization still has in its coffers will keep it afloat, but with a dwindling membership and the legal intimidation and public smear tactics the church has relied on for years to keep critics in line suddenly failing, Scientology is very likely a sinking ship. All it would take is the IRS pulling its tax-exempt status and that would be it — L. Ron Hubbard’s long con would finally be over.
But while it may take time to see the impact of Going Clear on the church as a whole, the damage to the celebrities who’ve championed Scientology may be noticeable almost immediately. Tom Cruise, in particular, was featured heavily in Going Clear and the revelations about his position and activities within the organization are damning. Cruise may not be the Biggest Movie Star on Earth anymore, but he’s still a hugely successful and bankable presence in film. In fact, he has what could very well be his biggest opening in years coming up this summer with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The trailer got plenty of viral circulation — to the point where Cruise’s stunt work was turned into a photoshop meme — and the Mission Impossible movies have traditionally done well for Cruise (they also happen to be good movies and, notably, ensemble films). But right about the time Cruise should be riding high on the MI buzz, along comes Going Clear to cast a dark cloud over everything.
The problem for Tom Cruise isn’t just his deep affiliation with Scientology, which is something the public is largely aware of, it’s his status as the church’s de facto spokesman and most glowing walking advertisement. And it’s even more than that. As Going Clear showed the world, in ways difficult to simply ignore, Tom Cruise’s lavish lifestyle, which is in part the product of an organization determined to make his every whim a reality, often comes at the expense of Scientology “Sea Org” members who are essentially slave labor. People are tortured so that tyrannical Scientology leader David Miscavige can keep Tom Cruise happy and keep himself and his organization attached to the star. It’s hard to picture Cruise being completely unaware of what’s going on beneath him, particularly when, as the film alleges, he can say he wants a girlfriend and one suddenly appears out of nowhere in the form of one-time Scientologist and eventual Homeland actress Nazanin Boniadi. Going Clear claims that when the relationship between Cruise and Boniadi fell apart, partially because Cruise screamed at Boniadi when he felt she wasn’t being “respectful” enough to Miscavige, the young woman was punished by being forced to clean bathrooms with a toothbrush.
Tom Cruise is owned by Scientology, but by the same token his personal relationship with David Miscavige appears almost sociopathically symbiotic. Going Clear highlights all of this in vivid and at times excruciating detail. What the film does that could be most damaging to Cruise is that it reopens wounds he’s tried for a decade to close. For a period in the mid-2000s, Cruise’s career went completely off the rails when he began expressing Scientology’s teachings and impact on him in a manner more direct than he ever had in the past. There was the infamous “Oprah Couch Jump” that left many wondering what the hell was going on inside Cruise’s head. (In 2012, Maureen Orth wrote a piece for Vanity Fair detailing the Boniadi period in Cruise’s life, which happened just before the big Katie Holmes reveal to Oprah.) That was followed by the equally infamous interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, where Cruise piously espoused Scientology’s hatred of psychology and called Lauer “glib” for not agreeing. Then came the January 2008 leak of an internal Scientology video which gave the world nine-and-a-half minutes of Cruise holding nothing back as he sang the praises of Scientology. His behavior and demeanor in the clip were so bizarre and frenzied as to actually be shocking.
All of this put a decent-sized hole in Cruise’s career. He continued to work, as he always had, because if there’s one thing no one can say about Tom Cruise it’s that he isn’t tireless when it comes to his craft. But he wasn’t able to open big pictures on his own anymore. Despite being a pretty good movie, Mission Impossible III, released at the height of the controversy surrounding Cruise, underperformed. Valkyrie, which was a “serious” Cruise starrer, disappointed. His comic cameo in Tropic Thunder was a winner, but that was, again, a cameo. Following that up, with the exception of the next installment in the reliable Mission Impossible franchise, everything he did either tanked completely or underwhelmed. Even interesting movies like Oblivion and flat-out great ones like Edge of Tomorrow have failed to find the audience Cruise could once command with the flash of a smile. And it’s not as if Cruise is past his prime, since the man honestly doesn’t seem to be aging. It simply feels like nothing has been the same since his “meltdown,” and now, after some real critical praise for Edge of Tomorrow thatat least brought with it cultural momentum and goodwill, his relationship to Scientology may torpedo that all over again.
Will it, though? I talked to Scott Mendelson, box office savant over at Forbes, to get his take on the impact Going Clear may have on Tom Cruise as a draw. “I think as long as he keeps his focus on the work and reminds people that he is an incredibly hard-working and uber-dedicated actor/producer who makes uncommonly good mainstream entertainments, he should be at least as okay as he’s ever going to be,” Mendelson said. “He won’t ever get back to his Interview with the Vampire/Jerry Maguire peak, but then few people stay on top for as long as he did anyway.” There’s little doubt that Cruise has been working toward getting back in the good graces of the public and that the studios have been obliging him. He’s a smart guy and when he realized that he was having trouble opening a movie by himself, he stopped trying. “He’s definitely switched tactics,” one Hollywood insider who’s worked on a Cruise project told me. “He hasn’t done a ‘Tom Cruise Great Actor’ movie in a long, long time. They’re all franchises, or high concept shit where his mug on the poster doesn’t have to carry it.” He went on to point out that the one film that relied solely on Cruise to sell tickets, Jack Reacher, underperformed (although given that it was based on a series of books, there’s a sequel in the works).
The problem is this: When Tom Cruise goes on his upcoming press tour for MI: Rogue Nation, someone somewhere is going to ask him about Going Clear. Cruise’s and the movie’s people will likely stipulate that the subject of the documentary is off-limits, but that won’t matter — somebody’s going to take the risk. However Cruise responds — or doesn’t — is sure to go viral. He almost certainly won’t comment directly on Going Clear simply because, as former Village Voice editor and Scientology critic Tony Ortega told me, “Scientologists are trained to ignore… ‘enturbulated theta,'” which is “essentially negative information about the church.” Ortega asks the big question: “Will Tom’s entertainment people impress on him that he’s got to do something? Or will his Scientology training keep him from even looking at the headlines about him, let alone the documentary itself. Hard to say.” Mendelson, meanwhile, says not having seen the movie can work to Cruise’s advantage. “He can’t expect to comment on something he hasn’t seen, and it gives the impression that he’s not automatically demagoguing anything related to Scientology.”
This is more than simply an issue of someone asking Tom Cruise whether he’s a Scientologist and what that means anymore, though. There’s real meat to the story now. Considering the revelations in Going Clear and the mere fact that it packaged beautifully the stories about Scientology and Cruise that were already out there, it’s going to be hard for Cruise to duck the fallout. Scientology, of course, teaches him that he doesn’t need to. As someone who’s reached the highest levels of enlightenment through Scientology’s “tech,” Cruise should believe that he can bend reality to his will. He can’t, though. Not on this. There’s a conventional wisdom among the public now that runs completely anathema to what was thought about Cruise maybe even a week ago. John Travolta at least has the benefit of looking like a man held hostage. Cruise, however, appears complicit in some of Scientology’s most depraved activities. At the very least, Going Clear paints a picture of him as someone who was always willfully ignorant of the abuses going on around him. The image of that isn’t something that goes away quickly.
As the Hollywood insider I spoke to told me about Cruise, “The line still seems to be, ‘I love his movies, I don’t care what his nutty beliefs are,’ as though his only Scientology-related sin is believing in Xenu.” That’s what Going Clear may have changed. It’s not about what Tom believes anymore. It’s about what he did — and didn’t do.