Movie review: “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” the documentary.

going clear

Last night, March 29, 2015, was the premiere on HBO of the much-anticipated documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. This film, directed by Academy Award winning documentarian Alex Gibney (most famous for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), is based on the best-selling 2013 book of the same title by Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Al-Qaeda and 9/11, The Looming Tower. I read Going Clear not long after it came out and posted a review on my blog. Given that, and the public interest in the documentary, I decided I should also review the film.

I was extremely impressed. What could easily have become a “gonzo” type salacious exposé, dwelling pruriently on Scientology’s dirty laundry, is actually a film that’s as lucid and careful as its source material. Wright’s well-sourced, carefully researched investigation of an extremely opaque and notoriously difficult to understand group comes across pretty faithfully in Gibney’s treatment. At two hours, it’s a long documentary and a very dense one. But the pacing of its eyewitness interviews, narrative sections and the transitions between its many subjects are tightly controlled and logically constructed, therefore making Going Clear a pretty exciting film that will hold your interest for its entire running time.

I must mention again how difficult a job this must have been. Going Clear (the book) probes every major aspect of the Scientology phenomenon, starting necessarily with the strange life of its founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Because Hubbard’s life and teachings are at the center of Scientology, they’re also the center of this film. The other personality that dominates the film, as it does Scientology, is the church’s current head, David Miscavige. The film doesn’t paint quite as terrifying a picture of Miscavige as the book does, but that’s simply because there’s not enough time to document the many unsavory episodes with which he’s been involved. Predictably (if you’ve read the book), the “musical chairs” episode–where Miscavige reportedly forced Scientology employees to play a grueling game of musical chairs in which their jobs, marriages and reputations were at stake–is the one chosen as representative of Miscavige’s excess. A central theme of the book and the documentary is the struggle for control of the sect following the death of L. Ron Hubbard in 1986. Miscavige quickly asserted that control, and much of what Scientology has become in the decades since has been his brainchild.

It’s impossible to talk about Scientology without addressing its two most prominent faces, Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But, as I said in the review of the book, what could have become a shopping cart of weird Hollywood gossip was instead handled about as well as one could reasonably expect. This is true in the movie version too. The documentary goes into Cruise’s relationship with the church, the gifts, the fundraising, and the romantic relationships the church is believed to have facilitated for Cruise. It can’t avoid the disclosure of the bizarre 2004 Scientology recruiting video, clips of which appear in the documentary. The movie generally spends little time on the real “media catnip” aspects of Cruise’s behavior, though, such as Katie Holmes and the Oprah Winfrey couch-jumping incident from 2005. This is probably a wise editorial choice. I was surprised, however, that the film also didn’t spend much time on how Cruise got into Scientology in the first place, which was through his first wife Mimi Rogers, and his somewhat ambivalent attitude (surprisingly) toward it during the 1990s. The film lays the blame for Cruise’s ambivalence and his near-drift away from the church at the feet of Nicole Kidman. This is in the book, but the story is actually a lot more complicated. Of course you can’t do everything in a movie.

This is the infamous Scientology recruiting video, starring Tom Cruise, that leaked in January 2008. This is the uncut version. If you’ve never seen it in full, it’s worth a look.

One trimming-down of the story that I liked about the movie was that of Paul Haggis. The Hollywood director (Crash), who split publicly and acrimoniously with the church in 2009 after nearly a lifetime in Scientology, was Wright’s first and most prominent source, and much of the book chronicles Haggis’s history within the organization as a way of dissecting how it really works. Haggis is important to the movie, but Alex Gibney wisely spreads the narrative and explanatory burden around rather than seeing it primarily through Haggis’s eyes. I think this is an improvement on the book. It may also blunt the inevitable hostile push-back from Scientology against the film. (HBO reportedly hired 160 lawyers, anticipating a barrage of lawsuits from the church). Scientology’s general approach in refuting the book was to tar Wright as a gonzo journalist–a bit tough to do given that Pulitzer Prize–who’s merely trumpeting false representations by bitter apostates, like Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, whom Scientology accuses of making up their stories. This approach wasn’t too successful in 2013 against the book, and I predict it will be even less so against the film which will probably have much greater reach.

Scientology is already pushing back, though. Evidently the church paid Twitter to “promote” tweets mocking the film and making fun of people who criticize it, especially under the hashtag #GoingClear. That’s to be expected, I guess. But that’s mere spin, and I don’t think it will affect many people’s view of the film. Going Clear, the documentary, stands on its own and pulls its own weight as an impressive feat of investigative filmmaking. It’s an excellent movie and well worth your time.

Grade: A

All images from Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief are copyright (C) 2015 by HBO Documentary Films. I believe my use of them here constitutes fair use under copyright laws.
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