‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” Quick Review
So, we’ve all heard about Scientology in one way or another – Southpark, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes– so going into Alex Gibney’s already widely regarded documentary Going Clear, we’re expecting all the dirty laundry about this so called “church” to be aired into stark, unbelievable reality. Gibney doesn’t disappoint as both ex-Scientologists and media types alike paint the cultish religion and its leaders in a damning light. Filmed from start to finish like one of those expose films about Area 51, Going Clear gives no illusions about what it’s ultimate goal is: for those who experienced psychological horrors and physical torment at the hands of a religious organization to tell all.
Based on the book by Lawrence Wright, who also appears in the film, the film begins with former church members – some very high up and public figures – describing how they became Scientologists intercut with shots of the well known E-Meter ticking away, an image that remains a constant throughout the film. We are given the very real sense of these people being lured in by the promise of good fortune at some financial expense, and how they are lead to believe that Scientology is the reason they are feeling better. However, the further they are drawn into the fold, we learn about L. Ron Hubbard and his sketchy past before he began dabbling in psychology as theology by way of science fiction. The more the former members talk and tell their stories, the darker and less hopeful they become as the church is portrayed in the same way as a cult, the many qualities described ringing bells from home video TV series on TLC, Nat Geo, and Lifetime about escaping from a supreme leader.
Meant for an audience on the outside of the religion, Going Clear is an emotional and stirring film. It awakens feelings of anger at the so-called church as stories of blackmail, brainwashing, and humiliation are described within a setting where it doesn’t belong. The film is incredibly well done and does exactly what it sets out to do: show Scientology for what it is – a cult. It’s not meant to make us think about it as anything else, regardless of how happy the interviewees are when they describe their first years within the religion.
However, as with many exposes of this type, not hearing the other side always opens the door for weakness, agenda peddling, and one-sided arguments. Though there are no current Scientologists featured in the film to defend their religion – all of them declining interviews – it is made clear from unrelated interviews, recorded speeches and found documents that these are not righteous or kindhearted people bent on a better society like John Travolta lays out at the beginning of the film. Without having them say anything directly to camera, Gibney presents us with footage that allows us to hear the leaders’ words – Hubbard, Miscavige – and those words, the salutes, the uniforms all make us shiver to think that they have religious freedom. As much leading as there clearly is to the conclusion that Scientology is dangerous and fraudulent as a religious organization, not much is needed in the end as Hubbard and Miscavige say everything in their physical presence and tone as they deliver the underlying messages of absolute control and paranoia that anyone can hear beneath their words intercut with documents and first hand stories of who they really were and are.
Going Clear is a dark, interesting, and ultimately soul saddening view of a religion that most of the world views as foolish, a business begun by a science fiction writer ultimately meant to make money off of the disenfranchised looking for a happier life. Rather than highlighting those celebrities of the church – Tom Cruise, John Travolta – the film focuses mainly on these regular people who rose through the ranks by giving to the church, becoming indoctrinated, realizing too late, and finally leaving while many watched their loved ones “Disconnect” with them for being troublesome people. Though the stories of Travolta and Cruise are distressing (Travolta’s more than Cruise), it is these people who don’t have a mountain of money to fall back on that risked everything to be free once they realized the truth that make the film as shocking, sad, and cringe worthy as it is.
(4.5 / 5)
(Photos copyright: HBO Documentary Films)