Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Alex Gibney

Starring

John Travolta Paul Haggis Tom Cruise

Anticipation.

Scientology gets the Gibney treatment.

Enjoyment.

An extremely entertaining and alarming overview of the church’s activities.

In Retrospect.

Confirms all negative inklings you may have about this purportedly shady organisation.

More honest-to-goodness muckraking from one-man doc institution, Alex Gibney.

Following its Sundance premiere and subsequent airing on HBO in the US, Alex Gibney’s rollocking piece of old school muckraking, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, finally sidles up to these isles as a minor brouhaha emanates with regards to the legality of its public exhibition. It’s the story of this tax-exempt, celebrity-obsessed, marine-based morass created by a one-time writer of generic penny dreadfuls, L Ron Hubbard. The film suggests that he channeled his ability to pump out fanciful sci-fi lit at a rate of knots into creating a doorstop work which the film frames as a piece of quack theology which would act as the lodestone for the creation of an entire creed: 1950’s ‘Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health’.

The film, however, is ripped from the pages of Lawrence Wright’s 2013 non-fiction work in which the author speaks to many high level affiliates of the church who have since torn up their membership cards. Unsurprisingly, the testimony gleaned on camera is highly critical of church practice, and the large cluster of small but curious details which emerge don’t, en masse, paint a particularly flattering picture of the religion/organisation. In fact, the picture they do paint – if the “picture” were an actual real picture – would resemble an epic, oil on canvas, gilded frame fresco depicting a turn-of-the-century fire engine crashing directly into a tax office. It’s a death-by-a-thousand-cuts deal, as the sheer tumult of miniature revelations add up to a very convincing case for those thinking of joining to think very hard about their decision.

Formally, the film doesn’t stray too far from the patented Gibney style, with carefully selected talking heads pushing the story forward, with the statements they make then festooned with archive footage and the occasional FX-driven infographic. The director decides to present footage of the church (most often montages of still photographs, as actual film is rare) unadorned, allowing it to speak for itself – an effective tactic. The church’s current leader (or chairman of the board?) is David Miscavige, who does not come out of the film well at all. His proto Apple keynote-style addresses to stadia full of dead-eyed revellers dressed in tuxedos are gaudy and triumphalist in the extreme, clearly not intended to be seen by those outside of the organisation. Still, it was the ’90s, and most things like this look awful in hindsight.

It you know your onions when it comes to Scientology, this film – highly entertaining though it is – will probably not tell you anything you didn’t already suspect. What’s interesting, though, is that much of its ire is directed at the purported paranoia of leader Miscavige and Hubbard, presenting vocal celebrity members such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise as mere patsies trapped in an organisation who, through their methods of stress testing, have over the years amassed detailed files containing all their deepest, darkest secrets. The film’s ultimate (and surprising) revelation is that Scientology is not a religion, more like a holiday time share that, once you’ve signed up, the glowing ‘Exit’ sign suddenly disappears.

Published 25 Jun 2015

Anticipation.

Scientology gets the Gibney treatment.

Enjoyment.

An extremely entertaining and alarming overview of the church’s activities.

In Retrospect.

Confirms all negative inklings you may have about this purportedly shady organisation.

Read More

The Armstrong Lie

By Emma Simmonds

On yer bike! One man doc machine Alex Gibney returns with a searing analysis of cyclist Lance Armstrong.

review

Janis: Little Girl Blue

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

The iconic American singer-songwriter gets a fitting tribute from doc heavyweights Amy Berg and Alex Gibney.

review LWLies Recommends

West of Memphis

By Andrew Simpson

The strange case of the West Memphis Three is transformed into a(nother) riveting documentary care of director Amy Berg.

review

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, LWLies has been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design