By Ygal Kaufman
Alex Gibney’s new HBO documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, premiered on March 29, and if you’ve seen it, your head is probably still spinning. Gibney is probably the most decorated and esteemed documentarian in the world, thanks to his prolific output and unrivaled access. He won an Oscar for his 2007 doc, Taxi to the Darkside, and deserved additional statuettes for his other brilliant films, including Finding Fela and The Armstrong Lie. Going Clear may be his most important work to date as it pulls down the curtain behind which the shadowy organization of Scientology operates.
Actor Jason Beghe (Chicago PD), writer/director Paul Haggis (Crash), and several very high-ranking former church members paint a picture of criminal imposition, assault, brutality, organized fraud, and countless other crimes. The universal feeling you can see in the interviews is embarrassment. Former members of the church have an understandable amount of trouble explaining how they could be duped into the things they did: giving money, indoctrinating friends, lying to everyone in sight to protect the secrets of the church—and usually they couldn’t even explain what it was they were defending.
The film jumps from story to story without a really consistent format other than linking the stories with images from the e-meter, the tool used to convince people they need Scientology. The e-meter eventually becomes a beautiful metaphor for persuasion and control. In between these scenes are chilling videos from inside Scientology gatherings that look like a mix between Temple of Doom and a Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film.
It’s all stunning and perfectly formed, but the thing that struck me the most about it is how much it basically resembled the famous 2005 South Park episode regarding the “religion.” For some reason I really expected the documentary version of the story to be somewhat less ridiculous, but it’s not. Gibney got unprecedented access to former church members, and the stories they tell will make your blood run cold. Babies taken away from members, human trafficking, indentured servitude—and that doesn’t even get into the weird stuff with the most famous celebrity members, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
The first half of the film focuses on history, including the crimes, odd behavior, and general weirdness of church founder L. Ron Hubbard. There are some moments in here that not only shed light on his followers, but also on past representations of him in film. Indeed, the biggest winner to come out of this film is not the former members who are finally given a platform from which to speak out, but probably director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose enigmatic 2012 film, The Master, was rumored to be based on Hubbard, and was somewhat of a flop with both critics and fans. I can only assume they knew as little about the church as I did. Indeed, once you’ve learned a little bit about Hubbard, you know that film was as deep a look at the real man as we’ll ever be afforded. It takes on a new brilliant light in retrospect, based on what’s revealed in this documentary.
The last half hour of the film is where it all comes together, including real footage of harassment squads sent by the church to intimidate former members. This is also where interviews with Lawrence Wright, upon whose book the film is based, drive home the terrifying point that the whole scary thing that was once the private power-mad playground of its founder is now its own monster, with parts independent of each other nefariously affecting people’s lives. That it premiered on HBO is a blessing in that it will now hopefully reach more people than it would have languishing in a theater.
I only hope you get a chance to see the film before I’m presumably sued into submission by Sea Org. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Hit up your closest friend with HBO GO and have your eyes opened.
Going Clear is still in cycle on HBO channels and can be viewed any time on demand by HBO subscribers with HBO GO.