Oscar-winner Alex Gibney has to be one of the most prolific documentary filmmakers around. Every year brings multiple releases from him, always handsomely made and always handling contentious and controversial topics, from Enron to Wikileaks, abuse in the Catholic Church to Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, Guantanamo Bay and Hunter S. Thompson and Freakonimics. You’d think the speed and frequency with which he makes these films would cause them to suffer, but each of them is driven by keen investigation and crafted with genuine skill. His latest documentary though, ‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’ tackles one of his most baffling subjects yet, one of the most controversial and mysterious organisations of the last hundred years.
Based on the book by Lawrence Wright, the film is an investigation into the creation and practices of the Church of Scientology, which has remained a relative mystery to the public since its creation. Founded by science fiction author and war veteran L. Rom Hubbard after the Second World War, it has amassed a huge following with its philosophy of self-improvement and unlocking hidden potential. However, rumours have persisted of uncomfortable and illegal practises going on behind the scenes, including brainwashing, child neglect, physical and mental abuse and extreme cases of extortion. And with a strict code of silence and many powerful people involved in the church, Scientology has evaded any serious investigation and continues to grow into an intimidating social and political force.
'GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF' TRAILER
Because of the "no media" approach the Church as adopted in the past few years, Gibney has the challenge of making his documentary feel balanced without being able to present an alternate perspective. Luckily, with Wright’s book as a guide, he’s able to construct a thrilling documentary akin to a thriller, with unexpected twists at every turn. The scale of ‘Going Clear’ is staggering, not just for the sheer volume of its content but for the mammoth figures at the heart of it. Like ‘We Steal Secrets’, Gibney makes this a story about people rather than an organisation, from founder Hubbard and Church leader David Miscavige to those at the bottom of the hierarchy, holding the Church up literally on their hands and knees.
The bulk of the material comes from interviews with people who have left the church in recent years, most of whom had been committed to it for decades and almost all coming from senior positions within the organisation. What this does is ensure that ‘Going Clear’ is driven by a human voice, diminishing any suggestion of the film demonising the Church for the sake of it. While each talk at length about the abuse and ostracising that forced them to leave, all are open about their reasons for joining and committing to the Church, and the positive benefits that come from it. The philosophies of Scientology itself are built on positive outcomes, and only as you advance in the hierarchy does the emotional and financial burden become too much to bear. All of the interviews are honest, candid and relaxed, and as the true scope of the Church’s paranoia and retaliation becomes clear, you come to understand why these poor people withstood it for so long.
All of the interviews are honest, candid and relaxed, and as the true scope of the Church’s paranoia and retaliation becomes clear, you come to understand why these poor people withstood it for so long.
As a technical feat, it’s another bravura feat from Gibney, who crafts the material in such a way that you are glued to the screen and on the edge of your seat. Rather than the ferocious energy and pacing of ‘We Steal Secrets’ and ‘The Armstrong Lie’, ‘Going Clear’ moves at a more considered pace, so that the copious amount of material doesn’t overwhelm. As it is, the emotional power of the film is overpowering enough. He also takes full advantage of his absent characters, those of Hubbard and Miscavige. Hubbard is an enormous figure, cripplingly damaged and totally insane, building a philosophy into a religion with almost no regard for logic or consistently. His actions seem driven by deep-seated mental instability, which makes him far more sympathetic than the opportunistic and maniacal Miscavige, who inherits the "kingdom" from Hubbard and builds it into a powerful social force. It’s Miscavige that the subjects of the interviews speak of with more horror, and the stories they tell are disturbing, not just in their content but in their consistency. Gibney should also be congratulated on presenting two of the Church’s most controversial figures, John Travolta and Tom Cruise, with a strong sense of balance and humility, showing them as much as victims and accomplices to what the film ultimately believes to be an enormous and damaging fraud.
It’s hard to walk away from ‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’ without feeling crushed by the enormity of it. It’s an epic two-hour saga into the controversial Church, like falling into some sort of fever dream where nothing makes any sense. But rather than attacking and demonising the organisation, Alex Gibney makes sure that his film is a human story, told from those directly affected, and has constructed the film with great sensitivity and care. This is a truly great piece of documentary filmmaking from a truly great documentary filmmaker. I’m already looking forward to revisiting it and continuing to come grips with the riddle of the world at the heart of it.