Recently, we expressed our disappointment that Jon Stewart neglected to ask Tom Cruise about the church of Scientology's many alleged abuses when he was a guest on his program last week. In a piece for The Hollywood Reporter today, Alex Gibney, who directed the Scientology expose “Going Clear,” aired similar frustrations, lamenting the "Daily Show" interview as “a missed opportunity" to hold Scientology's main celebrity figurehead to account.
“For once, someone with intelligence, rhetorical skill and insight could have confronted Cruise about the engine of cruelty that drives his chosen religion and reminded the world that the smiling movie star sits idly by, effectively endorsing a longstanding and ongoing pattern of human rights abuses,” Gibney wrote.
While Cruise’s PR team reportedly put a moratorium on Scientology questions, Comedy Central denied that there were any limits on what Stewart could ask (although the fact that Viacom owns both Comedy Central and Paramount, which released Cruise's "Mission Impossible -- Rogue Nation" is certainly not an insignificant point). Yet even if Stewart was being pressured to keep silent, there is a compelling reason to ignore a publicist’s instructions when allegations of human rights abuses are at stake.
Gibney doesn’t really blame Stewart, pointing out that other talk show hosts also failed to question the star about Scientology. Rather, Gibney blames the insulating machinery of celebrity for protecting toxic stars like Cruise (and, as he later mentions, Bill Cosby) and rendering them untouchable. “It takes hard work and lots of resources to manufacture celebrities,” Gibney continues. “And once they produce profits, investors don’t want to see their products tarnished.”
Referencing how Cruise used his influence to pull reruns of “South Park’s” Scientology episode, Gibney says he had trouble getting people in the entertainment industry to testify for “Going Clear” because they were afraid that Cruise and the Church would enact revenge on them for speaking out. Yet Gibney argues that it is essential that we hold celebrity Scientologists like Tom Cruise to account. In his view, the notion that religion is a private matter isn't a valid argument when it comes to Scientology.
“Through Scientology’s tax exemption, we all subsidize the church's documented cruel and unusual punishments of its adherents and critics,” he explains. “Yet what’s left of the church’s credibility remains because Tom Cruise — the movie star with the hundred-million-dollar smile — is the religion’s most powerful pitch man and recruiting tool. Tom Cruise is not just a believer; he’s essentially part of the church’s power structure. He can believe what he wants. But, as one ex-Scientologist told me, it’s not the creed, it’s the deed. The public actions of the religion demand that Cruise be held to account. That’s how change happens.”
Lately, there have been a wave of profiles heralding Cruise's return to movie-star dominance, with Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri writing in praise of the actor's onscreen abilities and dismissing Cruise’s involvement in Scientology in a few quick sentences. “I’m not here, however, to adjudicate Cruise’s religious views or mental health or even, really, his public image, which seems to be a complicated one," Ebiri writes in Cruise's defense. "I’m here to say: It’s time to start liking Tom Cruise, movie star and actor, again.”
But no matter how much we may like "Rogue Nation," Gibney argues that it's essential we don't allow the cult of celebrity to cloud our vision when it comes to more important issues.
“As audience members we can do our part," Gibney concludes. "While we crave the entertainment that celebrities offer (["Going Clear" author] Lawrence Wright has famously said that the worship of celebrity is the real American religion) we can’t let star power blind us to abuse. We should insist that celebrities play by the rules the rest of us do. And we need to be willing to encourage those who can to ask uncomfortable questions on our behalf. Just because Tom Cruise is promoting a movie we may like, we can’t allow him — or talk show hosts — to use his star power to silence questions about the viciousness exercised in the shadow of his reputation. Human rights are more important than Hollywood stunts on the wing of an airplane.”