HBO Documentary Films
There’s nothing especially revelatory contained within Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (or just “the Scientology doc,” if you’re feeling compelled to go clear in your own way) and viewers who have previously read the source material – Lawrence Wright’s nonfiction book of the same name – won’t be shocked by what the documentary contains, but what Gibney offers instead is a clearly designed crash course in understanding the so-called “prison of belief” that entraps the organization’s devotees. Crisply cobbled together from interviews (many from former Scientology members, including exceedingly high-ranking figures), stock footage, fresh looks at the various Scientology centers, and personal information, the film is a faithful companion to Wright’s book that also stands on its own, mainly because it’s put together so well.
Gibney has collected an impressive area of interview subjects for the feature, and their various levels of indoctrination and information neatly layer the material. The most recognizable talking head of all is filmmaker Paul Haggis, who infamously left the Church of Scientology in 2009, and has spoken out about his decision ever since. Haggis is an interesting case study, and his story works on an almost microcosmic level. Gibney’s feature opens with his subjects discussing how they first got into Scientology, and Haggis’ story is the most recognizable: he wanted things, he heard they made things happen, he joined them. The repercussions, of course, could not have been foreseen.
The pressure has been on Scientology in various ways over the years – part of that is surely do to Lawrence’s incendiary book, published in 2013, and the stories of people like Haggis or Tom Cruise’s one-time girlfriend, Nazanin Boniadi, who was the subject of a shocking Vanity Fair story from last year. As Gibney reveals, while the church has the most money it’s ever had, it’s also bottomed out on membership, with numbers currently hitting the 50,000 range (the church has long claimed that they have ten million members, which seems hard to buy even on a good day). Is Scientology in its death throes? If Gibney has his way, yes, and Going Clear just might be the blow that knocks the whole damn thing over.
Going Clear takes us through the important bits, briefly explaining how founder L. Ron Hubbard came to be the leader of a religion (short answer: he wrote a lot, was a bit insane, and wanted some money) and how the church ensnares its membership. The film scans as remarkably even-handed, even as ex-members like Jason Beghe declare it “nuts” and Haggis recounts stories of reaching higher levels, only to be gifted with “secret materials” so bonkers that he thought they were an actual insanity test. The emphasis of the film is on the individual experiences of the various interview subjects, and while they’re certainly varied enough, Gibney doesn’t go nearly as deep into exploring the darker parts of the organization, the pieces and practices that effect everyday members. Still, the stories the film has to share are jarring, and stand as prime examples of a disturbing organization and philosophy.
Is Going Clear unsettling? Deeply.
Gibney saves the most explosive stuff for the last act of the film, when he and his subjects unload a series of indictments against the Church and its current leader David Miscavige – from their (successful) plan to be declared a tax exempt religious organization by a hamstrung IRS to details about physical abuse approved and often inflicted by Miscavige himself – and essentially close the book on what the “religion” stands for and is capable of. Miscavige comes across as an insane megalomaniac, but Gibney also fixes his gaze on a more meaningful target: Tom Cruise. The brightest star in the Scientology constellation, Gibney and the ex-members don’t balk at making it clear that Cruise doesn’t just know about the organization’s transgressions, he also directly profits from them. Moreover, Gibney asserts that the church was directly responsible for the end of Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman and that they additionally worked to turn the couple’s children against their mother.
Going Clear isn’t so much a call to action as a warning to Scientology that their methods and beliefs will no longer stand and that things are finally being done about it, people are no longer afraid to talk, and that the world will soon view them in a different manner – a shot, not a warning.
The Upside: Thoughtfully and clearly assembled from interviews, stock material, and new footage; includes a number of jaw-dropping new interviews; doesn’t aim for inflammatory or over-the-top statements or accusations.
The Downside: The segments about Scientology’s creation and rise to power are too slim, Gibney fails to clearly explain where some of his material was gathered from (particularly in regards to “recollections” from Hubbard’s first wife), doesn’t focus enough on non-celebrity members.
On the Side: After the film’s Sundance premiere, the majority of the ex-members who appeared in the documentary were on hand for a Q&A. At the conclusion of the session, they were carefully escorted out by a ringed group of volunteers, all holding hands so as not to be broken apart and/or infiltrated.