10 days ahead of the premiere of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the Church of Scientology took out a full-page advertisement in two coastal newspapers denouncing the 2015 documentary. They also contacted film critics and hassled former church members in what could only be described as an structured and entirely batty campaign of bullying.
This is par for the course and Gibney’s documentary, an organized piece of work that actually lacks the personal touch the filmmaker added to 2015’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. It stands to reason that the director is less personally outraged with Going Clear because there is more than enough outrage to go around.
The documentary is based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief and it lays out the case with some rather stunning archival footage and a series of interviews with former church members. Mike Rinder, Mike Rathbun, Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe, and several other ex-Scientologists are among the subjects.
The film begins by detailing the allure of Scientology, with various interviewees explaining why they joined the church in the first place. Gibney also explores the origins of L. Ron Hubbard’s baby and explores the evolution of leadership, with David Miscavige as the current leader. Celebrities also come into play, with John Travolta and Tom Cruise among those explored.
Gibney didn’t interview any current Scientologists for Going Clear, with the church apparently offering a “delegation of 25 unidentified members.” While the reasons for refusing to include Scientology’s crack individuals makes a certain degree of sense, one has to imagine that the inclusion of at least a few current members might’ve made for some fascinating material.
That’s not to say that Scientology isn’t represented in any current fashion, of course. Gibney pulls from a mass of archival footage, interview portions and other sources to deliver the words of Hubbard and Miscavige in plain view. Miscavige is an odd-shaped martinet in front of towering, blazing erections. Hubbard is a nut with bad teeth.
Both figures cut astonishing forms, with the flamboyant farce booming from the spectral corridors of Scientology’s systemic culture of intimidation and attack. But the subjects have their day in Gibney’s presentation, speaking with conviction and fire about the years of their lives they gave away and the shame they feel when they look back on what once was so integral.
Haggis, who has since been subject to church smear campaigns, is honest about what attracted him to Scientology in the first place. He’s also honest about what drove him away after nearly 35 years in the tank. Haggis, like others interviewed by Gibney, is astonished by his failure to see the truth sitting right in front of him.
The stories of the abuses, scare tactics and misdeeds of Scientology are legion. Gibney spends some time going over certain things, like the auditing process and how the church’s bundle of secrets on the likes of Travolta have made him into a “captive” and how “the Hole” exists on Gold Base as a way to confine and punish the management culture.
There is also word of the church wire-tapping Nicole Kidman, plus there’s a rather alarming allegation regarding the Iranian-born actress Nazanin Boniadi and her priming as a sweetheart for Cruise. There is footage of the harassment and stalking of former members, including the appearance of the “Squirrel Busters” as they show up at Rathbun’s house in all their stupid regalia.
Gibney’s documentary is effective because the audience can feel the anger of the subjects while it can sense the madness in how Scientology carries out its ugly business. It is detailed, venturing through the church’s battle against taxation and its many dubious internal practices. Most of all, it is unflinching in its clear exploration of what could best be termed a “pretty grim joke.”