For those who have read Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book—or the 2011 New Yorker piece that inspired it—Going Clear probably won’t contain many revelations. (I’ve only read the New Yorker story.) A methodical deconstruction of the Church of Scientology, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s documentary will tell you what you may already know about the religion founded by prolific science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard: how it indoctrinates new members, how it cultivates celebrity practitioners and how it intimidates those who speak out against the Church.
But if the film’s value as an exposé is limited, Going Clear is sterling as an official record of condemnation. Subtitled Scientology and the Prison of Belief—Wright’s book ran with the slightly more pointed Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief—the film is about the Church’s inner workings and its aggressive theological system, which draws from alien mythology, celebrity culture, proactive legal action and “disconnecting” from those who don’t share the same religious views. But Going Clear’s more arresting elements aren’t the supposed salacious bits, because who cares if John Travolta remains a faithful acolyte because, as some have speculated, he’s gay? Instead, what’s so fascinating about the film is Gibney’s interest in how people blind themselves to logic in order to find some sort of reason in their lives. In this way, Going Clear isn’t that far removed from the director’s previous documentaries like Client 9, Mea Maxima Culpa or The Armstrong Lie, which chronicled cults of denial and their consequences.
For his new film, Gibney talks with eight former Scientologists, the most high-profile being Paul Haggis, who won two Oscars behind Crash. It was Haggis’s announcement that he was leaving the Church in 2009 that led to the original New Yorker piece, and in Going Clear he still seems bewildered by his 30-year association with Scientology. The documentary acutely captures the disbelief and shame on the faces of interview subjects who used to be Scientologists. Bright, accomplished people, they all got sucked into the Church. Years later, they haven’t yet found the words to articulate exactly what they were thinking.
Gibney allows Haggis, as well as former Scientology spokesmen and members who attained the highest social position in the Church, to tell their stories as straightforwardly as they can, wisely staying out of the way of its subjects. A religion consumed by controversies—not the least of which is that, despite being a nonprofit unobligated to pay taxes, the Church has a war chest of over $1 billion—Scientology is an easy target for snide putdowns, especially ever since A-list follower Tom Cruise began acting more erratically at the time he began publicly espousing the religion’s benefits. But rather than going for cheap sensationalism, the movie is clinical in its dissection, outlining former members’ grievances and relying on sturdy reporting to investigate the Church’s policies. Just as damning is the group’s own video materials, which include recruitment ads and organizational conferences that have the unsettling fervor of a cult rally. Gibney’s filmmaking style has often tended toward the sober, but Going Clear is especially stripped-down. One imagines that, considering how litigious the Church can be, he wanted to be as clear as possible in his evidence, confronting its leaders (and the public) not with smugness or condescension, but cold, hard testimonials.
The people who tell Gibney their stories come from different walks of life, but their experiences with Scientology are remarkably similar. Often, they found a sense of self-confidence in the Church, or, like it happens for many religions, excitement in being part of something greater than themselves. This was all part of Hubbard’s initial design. Going Clear begins by looking at the organization’s founder, fairly portraying him as an ambitious dreamer who fudged details about his war record and was accused of abuse by his wife Polly. From there, Gibney illustrates how Scientology became a sensation starting in the 1950s, even attracting artists like Leonard Cohen and some members of the Grateful Dead. The secret to the religion’s success was “auditing,” a process by which an inquisitor asks a member (or prospective member) about past pains and secret regrets. As one former member relates in the film, there was something liberating about releasing these traumas, even if the Church reportedly held onto these conversations to later use as blackmail against anyone who thought of leaving.
All religions can be criticized by nonbelievers for their questionable tenets and dubious origin stories. (Remember that Mea Maxima Culpa was incredibly pointed in its attacks on the Catholic Church, which turned a blind eye to reports of sexual abuse.) But Going Clear illustrates what’s so preposterous about Scientology—essentially, it’s a religion that sounds like it’s based on one of Hubbard’s old sci-fi stories, because it is—and why its aggressive tactics are so deplorable. We hear from members who were put into detention centers to be, essentially, re-educated; we see footage of the Church’s current head, the slickly smiling David Miscavige, preaching to the faithful while condemning the Internal Revenue Service for contending that Scientology didn’t qualify as a religion, and therefore shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status. (The IRS would officially recognize Scientology as a religion in 1993, in large part because Miscavige successfully convinced so many believers to sue the government.) Without overselling the outrage, Going Clear argues that the Church is a vindictive organization which encourages bigger and bigger donations from the faithful, convincing members of its ever-growing need for funds to fight its enemies.
After watching Going Clear, it may be even harder to understand why Gibney’s interview subjects could have been so foolish to spend so much of their lives with the Church. The filmmaker never condemns these people—he merely asks them to explain themselves. They fumble for words, they offer apologies, they take the tones of people who have escaped abusive relationships, never really knowing why they didn’t flee sooner. In truth, it’s their lack of reasonable explanations that actually underlines Scientology’s power. It’s not amazing that Gibney’s handful of subjects have finally come to their senses, so to speak—it’s that so many still haven’t, or can’t, or won’t.
Director: Alex Gibney
Writers: Alex Gibney (screenplay); Lawrence Wright (book)
Release Date: March 13, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.