The Church of Scientology is a sick joke of an institution, but it’s also morbidly fascinating. It’s a moneymaking scheme that became a cult, a cult that masqueraded as a religion to make more money, and now it won’t die. It’s wealthy yet small (an estimated 50,000 members), ubiquitous yet reviled, and craves respect despite flagrantly offensive behavior. Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear: Scientology & The Prison of Belief provides a condensed, visualized version of Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name. Gibney mostly cuts the juicier, inessential anecdotes from Wright’s book, but occasionally indulges in titillating info that doesn’t contribute to the overall exploration of why adherents would cling to an abusive organization. While readers won’t be treated to new information, it will likely be fascinating to the curious, and disturbing to all.
Going Clear is largely divided into two halves. After beginning with a brief opening where we see footage from a 2013 Scientology gala, and then speaking to former members such as filmmaker Paul Haggis and actor Jason Beghe, Gibney goes into the history of founder L. Ron Hubbard and the creation of Scientology. We see that Hubbard was a con artist at his best and a physically and emotionally abusive monster at his worst. Gibney doesn’t equivocate in his documentary, and while Wright—who appears as an interview subject throughout the film—sees Hubbard as a believer more than a fraud, Gibney strongly implies that the sci-fi author-cum-cult leader began with a scam and ended up buying into his own hype.
The second half looks at Scientology following Hubbard’s death, specifically the dealings of its current head, David Miscavige. The movie opens up to include more interviews with former members who speak openly about their time as Scientologists and back up evidence regarding the organization’s true mission, dirty tricks, and criminal behavior that can’t be investigated because the First Amendment protects the Church ever since it was declared a religion by the Internal Revenue Service. Scientology’s practices and beliefs push Gibney to ask why anyone would stay with such a horrific and insane organization.
Like Wright’s expose, Gibeny doesn’t explore the “prison of belief” until the conclusion of the picture, and spends most of his time piling on the bizarre and unnerving history and practices of Scientology. It’s a lot of evidence that’s mean to shock and confound the audience as we wonder why people would sign a billion year contract for the privilege of working for 40 cents an hour to support an organization that makes hundreds of millions of tax-free dollars.
Gibney efficiently provides us with a retelling of Wright’s book by incorporating plenty of visual flourishes alongside the standard interview format. While the book is incredibly entertaining, the documentary provides photos, footage, and audio. So while there isn’t much in the way of new information, the documentary provides at the very least a helpful companion to the novel as well as mostly cutting it down to the essential material.
The secrecy surrounding Scientology makes it a draw for outsiders, but perhaps an even bigger hook are its association with celebrities, specifically John Travolta and Tom Cruise. The movie comes right up to the line of saying that the two actors will never denounce Scientology because the organization would expose them as homosexuals (note: I don’t know if these actors are gay; the documentary strongly implies they are). Because Cruise functions as an “ambassador” for Scientology, the movie takes time to specifically focus on his relationship with the organization and how he’s a major asset. This makes him worthy of attention, but only to an extent. It’s worth noting that Cruise basically receives goods and services from slave labor as Sea Org members cater to his every whim. It’s also heartbreaking to see how Scientology basically broke up Cruise and Nicole Kidman and then proceeded to turn their adopted children against her by labeling her a “suppressive person” (standard practice of any cult: separate members from those outside the cult, especially loved ones).
What’s less important is how hard Miscavige tried to find Cruise a girlfriend. Yes, this shows the organization’s determination to please its greatest marketing tool, but we already know this from the galas, the videos, and the gifts. We don’t need to see how Nazanin Boniadi was pulled from the ranks, presented to Cruise, and then punished when he rejected her. This story is another piece of evidence about why The Church of Scientology is seriously screwed up, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, which is why people are attracted to it, why they stay with it, and why they leave it.
If we look only at Scientology, then the movie is an exposé about a single organization, and that’s fine. The more people learn about Scientology, the more likely they are to demand that the organization not only lose its tax-exempt status, but also that the FBI investigate the criminal allegations made against The Church. As an advocacy documentary, it has a specific purpose, and it presents a convincing argument that should compel viewers to see Scientology as not only a morbid curiosity, but also a dangerous cult we’ve allowed to exist for far too long. It can’t keep being seen as “That wacky religion Tom Cruise belongs to.”
But where Going Clear goes beyond one insane cult is the “prison of belief”. While cynics can say that Scientology bears the same traits as any old religion like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., that doesn’t hold up for a variety of reasons, and one of the interviewees explains why. But what’s more compelling is why people lean so fervently on any institution no matter how abusive and deranged it might be. Scientology is the most successful cult in human history. Its origins and machinations are interesting, but its larger implications for human behavior are truly unsettling. Gibney’s documentary exposes the tip of the iceberg, and that’s more than enough to see the ugliness and chaos Scientology can wreak.
Click here for all of our Sundance 2015 coverage. Click on the links below for our other reviews:
- The Bronze
- The End of the Tour
- In Football We Trust
- The Mask You Live In
- Mississippi Grind
- Most Likely to Succeed
- Slow West
- Stockholm, Pennsylvania
- White God
- Z for Zachariah