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Review: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Premise: Based on the book by Lawrence Wright. A documentary about the origins of Scientology and the religion’s impact on its followers.

What Works: Alex Gibney is one of the best and most prolific documentary filmmakers currently at work in American cinema. He has a history of exposing powerful people and influential institutions in documentaries such as Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, and Taxi to the Dark Side. Two qualities distinguish Gibney from political filmmakers like Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim. The first is his meticulous research; Gibney always presents himself as a man in search of the truth about his subjects and he follows the facts wherever they lead rather than bending the facts to fit a preconceived conclusion. The investigative rigor of his movies gives them a credibility absent from a lot of activist documentaries. The other impressive aspect of Gibney’s work is the quality of his filmmaking. His movies have a polish and a production value that makes them cinematic in a way that a lot of other contemporary documentaries are not. Both of those qualities come to bear in Going Clear. It’s technically well produced and it includes some compelling research. The Church of Scientology is known for its secretiveness and its skill in managing its members and its public image. Nevertheless, Gibney and his crew have made a film that cuts through the PR gloss and gets to what the Church of Scientology is and what it does. A lot of this film is made of archival material and interviews with former Church members. That’s one of the ways in which Going Clear is especially impressive. Religion is one of those topics that tends to cause derangement especially when it’s discussed in a critical way and documentaries critical of faith like Religulous tend to ridicule religion and its practitioners. Going Clear doesn’t do that. Instead the movie demonstrates a tremendous amount of pathos for the people involved in Scientology. The tone remains smooth and rational even as it recounts outrages and abuses. But despite that evenness of tone, the movie’s critique of Scientology is quite devastating especially as it exposes the Church’s abuse of its followers. But what’s curious about these abuses is that the film makes clear that many of the participants willingly debased themselves to demonstrate their dedication to the Church. That’s where Going Clear gets to a broader and scarier truth about faith. As the subtitle The Prison of Belief indicates, this is a movie about the way people’s credulity and hope are exploited and the way ideology can mutate from a framework and into a prison. Going Clear illustrates this in relation to Scientology but the epiphanies of this film apply to all sorts of beliefs and allegiances, whether religious or secular. In that respect, Going Clear gets at something inherently dangerous about our desire to believe.

What Doesn’t: The quality and range of interviews in Going Clear is impressive but the film spends a lot of time discussing Scientology’s celebrity spokesperson Tom Cruise. The movie dwells on this at length and while it is interesting it feels as though the picture gets a little hung up on Cruise’s celebrity. It’s also worth pointing out that Going Clear has faced significant pushback from the Church of Scientology. While none of the facts in the documentary have been disproven, the movie relies upon testimonials from ex-Church members but no current Scientologists.

Bottom Line: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is an extraordinary exposé of a powerful organization. But beyond poking holes in the ideology of the Church and impugning its leaders, the film also challenges the way in which we put faith in people and institutions.

Episode: #579 (January 24, 2016)