What is perhaps the most amazing thing about Going Clear is that, from the original book’s conception, it was not supposed to be condemnation of Scientology. The book was intended to act as an investigation and informative discussion of the merits and criticisms of the organization, but what the author found was uniformly disturbing and horrifying. Enter documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, who sought to adapt the book into a documentary, and I’ll be damned if he did not succeed in making one of the most compelling documentaries in recent memory, and not just because of its sensational material.
Gibney excels as a documentarian because he is able to craft a story purely through his research and his interviews, which sounds like a no brainer as far as documentaries go but can be rather difficult to achieve in execution. Here, Gibney begins his story with the life and mind of Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, whom evidence and testimony paints in two seemingly disparate lights: as a manipulative cult leader seeking to create a personal tax shelter or as a disturbed individual who actually believes what he tells his followers. Gibney rather amazingly embraces that contradiction and shows that Hubbard could well have been both simultaneously, a man with selfish intentions who melted under the self-imposed pressures of the mythology he created.
However, this fascinating biographical study is only the tip of the iceberg, as the film starts to investigate Hubbard’s successor as leader of the church, David Miscavige. Miscavige is infamous for his unwillingness to engage in interviews or discourse with the media, and Gibney tries to explain this seclusion by looking to how Miscavige was brought up in the church, how he manipulated his way into a position of absolute power within the church’s ranks, and how he has abused that power to corrupt the organization even beyond its founder’s intentions, causing even the IRS to bend to his will. This film exposes Miscavige as the head of the largest corporation in the world and how he has gotten away with passing it off as a tax-exempt religion. It is gripping stuff.
But what this all culminates in is not just a biography of the organization itself, but of the people it has used and abused to further its ends. There is some obligatory service rendered to the lives and manipulations of noted Scientologist celebrities such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise, whose subjugation into being spokespeople for the church is sadder than I had ever realized. But it is in the numerous interviews with survivors of the mental, emotional, and physical abuse administered by the church that really strike home the monstrosity of this organization and what it can get away with under the banner of religious freedom. This includes former leaders within the church who have since become disillusioned, people who have been sent to actual prison camps for re-education, and those who have been harassed by the church in the many years since leaving. It is eye-opening to just how horrible the infamous group is to those in its fold.
The last frame of the film is a list of those who declined to be interviewed, exclusively consisting of those still affiliated with the Church of Scientology. The film posits that to appear in public would necessitate self-defense against the claims that hundreds of their former ranks have alleged, and that the church is not equipped to deny any of the mountains of evidence against them. Alex Gibney has compiled such a complete case against the institution that the two hour runtime is collapsing under the weight of the evidence, as there are undoubtedly many stories that there simply wasn’t enough runtime to share. This is a brilliant instance of documentary filmmaking and deserves your undivided attention. Give it just that.