Alex Gibney’s new documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” is mesmerizing. Based on Lawrence Wright’s eponymous book, it sheds light onto the strangely fascinating cult that has been the source of rumors and half-joking references in American culture for years. But more than just a history of an enigmatic group, the documentary tells a captivating story of the consequences of human desires; desires to be a part of something, to bring change, to mean something as an individual in a world populated by billions of people — even when swayed by charismatic leaders and a tempting ideology.
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Disbelief ”
The documentary begins with snippets of real audio recordings of former Church of Scientology members answering questions, their voices blending together to create a discordant soundtrack that feels like the beginning of an artistic horror film. The Oscar-winning director constructs his narrative by profiling the Church’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. Gibney demonstrates a sharp talent for pacing from the beginning, methodically undermining Hubbard’s credibility with each beat. Hubbard’s science fiction novels, written years before he founded the Church, contained many of what became the principal tenets of Scientology. The foundation on which the Church was built consisted of recycled material from Hubbard’s “Dianetics,” a novel published in 1950. He lied extensively about his World War II service, spinning his own story into a hero’s tale, insisting that Scientology cured him of war wounds — ones he never actually suffered. He manipulated his wife, threatening suicide and homicide to make her acquiesce to his demands.
The documentary’s greatest strength lies in the camera’s unflinching gaze into the eyes of former Scientologists who broke with the Church. It’s clear these ex-members just aim to explain themselves — wanting us not only to believe them but to sympathize with their former selves, whom we see triumphantly cheering for David Miscavige’s (the leader of the Church after Hubbard) speeches in grainy old video footage. Their accounts of the attractiveness of Scientology, an ideology that preaches a world without war, crime or insanity, are riveting, revealing, as stories spill out that have been bottled up for years.
Actors John Travolta and Tom Cruise, the two most recognizable names associated with Scientology, are discussed at length. Travolta’s glassy stares and sharklike smiles, and Cruise’s manic convictions in old interviews are included in archived footage. For faces that have been on our screens for years, they are startlingly frightening in this context.
The most damning stories of the Church aren’t those about their campaign (which they won) to get tax exemptions or even their attacks on their critics, but rather in the accusations of psychological and physical abuse. One former member, Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, describes escaping in a getaway car from the headquarters of the Church after seeing the kind of neglect her newborn baby was subjected to.
Despite the ex-member’s eagerness, the documentary still would’ve benefited from more pointed questions to its interviewees, who were happy to talk without being prodded; it is unclear whether many of the followers believed in the pseudo-scientific aspects or if they were content to ignore them. However, the directions that they take in telling their own stories without being prompted often are absorbing enough to keep audiences intrigued.
“Going Clear” doesn’t waste a single minute or breath on superfluous information or gratuitous dramatic devices, relying on facts to craft a narrative that is chilling in its honesty. Its persuasive power is in the rhythmic reveal of fact after fact, culminating in a solidly constructed depiction of the church. At the end of two hours, it has left us not with an unshakeable belief in the inherent evilness of Scientology, but rather a morbid, vaguely repulsed fascination with the inner workings of a cult-like organization that has managed to stay under the radar for so long.