Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, has the potential to rock your world. Although South Park’s brilliant Trapped in the Closet already covered the same ground, Going Clear features stellar interviews with a handful of ex-Scientologists. If a 21-minute cartoon parody doesn’t convince you that Scientology is batshit crazy, see this film. Beware: by the end, you’ll question a lot more than just Scientology.
Variety’s Scott Foundas wrote, “Gibney has made a great film about the dangers of blind faith…” Many faiths are at least somewhat blind. In dismantling a specific belief system, Gibney and Wright provide a template that can be applied to other religions, clubs, cults or corporations. In a sense, Going Clear is a continuation of previous Gibney films Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012) and even Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) (an investigation of U.S. torture practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay). All of these concern powerful organizations doing terrible things and excusing/hiding/denying all under the cover of a higher calling.
Religions and clubs (even corporations and countries) often do good, of course. I have a friend who wants to read L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, the book that established the basis for Scientology. She heard that it helps people get past hangups and achieve their potential. Sounds good; that’s the lure. But every step has a price tag. Escalation of commitment reinforces faith, to the point where adherents accept increasingly outlandish requirements. When a personal belief system imposes on others, it’s gone too far. In the case of Scientology, the organization purchases real estate and doesn’t pay taxes; it also litigates furiously and employs other, more physically direct means of intimidating those who leave the organization or speak out against it.
Some have criticized Gibney’s use of imaginative visual techniques to illustrate Going Clear. Anthony Kaufman writes in Screen Daily: “…some reenactments are heavy-handed or sensationalistic.” I’d be more concerned if that’s all he had, but the embellishments are usually obvious (we don’t mistake them for primary source material.) Also, on-camera interviews comprise the bulk of the film. So if some parts are a bit flashy, they arguably provide momentum and underscore various points. Flash doesn’t compromise the facts.
The stories told in Going Clear are harrowing. The film’s title refers to one of the main goals for Scientologists – when individuals become “clear” of psychological impediments and are able to achieve their maximum potential. The title also applies to those who have escaped the organization. Most of Gibney’s subjects used to be high-ranking Scientology officials. They describe a paranoid corporate culture devoted to making as much money as possible. Members of the Sea Org, the group’s paramilitary wing, work for extremely low wages (sometimes pennies per hour). Sea Org runs The Hole, a prison camp where dissenters are compelled to do hard labor and are often physically and emotionally abused.
Famous faces Tom Cruise and John Travolta don’t fare well in this movie. Cruise, in particular, is given plenty of screen time to appear crazy (he seems to be playing the role of Tom Cruise, Super Scientologist.) The ongoing involvement of celebrities might be why so many give Scientology a pass, as in “Tom Cruise is rich and famous; how bad can it be?” Luckily, Gibney has other celebrities on hand (writer/director Paul Haggis, actor Jason Beghe) to explain why they started, and why they got out.
The larger mystery is why anybody would remain in Scientology, if the assertions in Gibney’s film are true. The Guardian’s Brian Moylan wrote that the film is “a bit one-sided. Doubtless church officials would issue a full denial of all claims (they declined Gibney’s invitation to comment) but their lack of involvement means it’s easy to be sceptical about some of the more outlandish claims made by former members.” This is where we need to apply Gibney’s template. Have I witnessed organizations that lure adherents, suck their time and money, compel them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, and punish those who disagree? Oh, yeah. I’ve gone clear of my share. I believe Wright and Gibney’s portrayal; hopefully their work (and South Park’s) will help tear down the “Church of Scientology.” If not that, maybe it will open some eyes to other “Prison(s) of Belief.”