In a relatively short time, director Alex Gibney has become quite the talented documentarian. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief will not be changing that opinion anytime soon. The director’s adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book on the religion’s bizarre history is fairly routine in terms of its allegations, but with such incredible material, that’s more than enough.
With the same methodical assiduousness he has displayed in previous investigative films such as the Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Gibney provides an authoritative overview of Scientology’s history, beliefs and organizational structure, drawn from testimony from some of its most prominent survivors and critics. Supplemented by rare archival footage, almost entirely deployed under the copyright terms of fair use when no news agencies or rights holders agreed to cooperate, the film is an accessible, one-stop shop that will comprehensively counter apathy from viewers who might consider the organization nothing more than a bunch of harmless kooks who believe in mumbo jumbo about intergalactic overlord Xenu and volcanoes.
Deeply involving in its swirling overview of Scientology’s troubling history, Going Clear offers a polished approach to its topic throughout. Gibney uses charts and numerical data to illustrate the church’s expanding influence as it has amassed billions in worth. The movie successfully brings its drama into the present day, though its focus suffers somewhat from a narrow scope. By limiting the talking heads to a handful of well-known defectors and a few prominent journalists, Going Clear lacks the immediacy that testimonials from younger defectors could have brought.
But it compensates for that shortcoming with the inspiring commitment of the former Scientologists willing to speak up. As a result, it’s ultimately less about the evils of the church than the motives of the people intent on stopping its oppressive ways. The story closes with the efforts of Scientology critic Jason Beghe to gather many of the film’s subjects in a galvanizing attempt to effect change.
In terms of the much-anticipated exposure of the church’s links to celebrities, there’s not much here that hasn’t surfaced before, but some of the aforementioned ex-members speak very forcefully on camera about their convictions that high-profile members like John Travolta and Tom Cruise surely can’t be wholly unaware of the worst accusations against the organization. Accounts of how the church set about undermining Cruise’s marriage to Nicole Kidman, who like Cruise and many others declined to speak to the filmmakers, are not unfamiliar, nor are the stories about the organization’s efforts to match-make Cruise with a pliant new girlfriend after he and Kidman split for good. Still, the material is sufficiently juicy to attract interest from casual viewers when the film airs on HBO later this year.
Other famous so-called apostates, including writer-director Paul Haggis and actor Jason Beghe, offer their own personal testimonies and, like the onetime high-ranking officials who appear alongside them, express their shame at willfully shielding themselves from the darker aspects of the organization. No one, however, expresses it with more eloquent simplicity than Mark Rathbun, who, when asked what he regrets most about his time within Scientology, replies, “the entire experience.”
As the heroes of Going Clear, they give the movie its underlying value as a form of advocacy. To that end, their reflections unquestionably offer a path for current Scientologists questioning their commitment. The title technically refers to the Scientology concept of cleansing invasive alien “Thetans” from one’s body, but by the end, it has a new context: The defectors have gone clear of the forces that brainwashed them for years, and Going Clear is an apt tribute to their defiance.