Director Alex Gibney’s new film “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” won’t present any breaking news for viewers who read Lawrence Wright’s shocking novel of the same name. Similar to many documentaries largely focused on social commentary, seeing is believing, and the film aims to devastate.
Before “Blackfish,” many articles and published journals discussed SeaWorld’s mistreatment. Before “The Inconvenient Truth,” global warming was no stranger to those in the scientific community. There’s something to be said about critical documentary filmmaking that rides the line between journalism and entertainment. After HBO airs “Going Clear” this Sunday at 7 p.m., it will sends shock waves through the media, and Scientology will become a target on a much larger scale than it already is today.
The filmmakers understand this, and so does Scientology, which is why they’ve fired back at the documentary in the weeks leading up to its release. Scientology is notorious for their dealings with the media and their reluctant attitude toward reporters. The church wrote a five-page letter, which The Hollywood Reporter published, stating “the film is biased propaganda that on average includes at least one major error every two minutes.”
The Daily Beast also accused the church this month of using Google ads to discredit the film, claiming they purchased top spots for “Going Clear” searches that would send them to Scientology-sponsored articles about the film.
Regardless of whether Scientology claims the film is propaganda (because why wouldn’t they?), one of the biggest advantages Gibney’s documentary has over reading Wright’s novel is viewers will be able to see real footage of Scientology’s mass “events,” which will be much more compelling.
“Going Clear” features eight former Scientology members, some of whom were at the top of the pack. Marty Rathbun was the church’s second-in-command at one time as well as the chief enforcer. Rathbun discusses the tactics of Scientology, including how they actively pursue celebrities to generate more “true believers,” and explains what some of them are willing to do in the name of Scientology. Two of the more prominent A-listers active in the church are, of course, actors John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
There is so much content in the film. Viewers might not be able to find a singular theme, but that’s not relevant. The content doesn’t do well under the time constraints of a feature-length piece. The narrative bounces from celebrity involvement to the individual members who have seen their lives change dramatically because of their involvement with the church.
“Going Clear” doesn’t leave out the most important part in their attempt to expose Scientology, which is what the church actually teaches. When you join the church, it presents itself as a program of sorts that gives a new follower the tools to live a better life, but the core belief system isn’t explained until years of involvement within the church where a member may spend thousands of dollars before learning the core doctrine.
When a member reaches the Operating Thetan level after ascending “The Bridge,” they receive the sacred text of Scientology, which is L. Ron Hubbard’s notes explaining the history of humanity. This handwritten material tells the story of how humans were brought to Earth (a slave planet) billions of years ago by a dictator, Xenu, and thrown into volcanoes where they were blown up with hydrogen explosives.
This backstory is just one of the many things “Going Clear” looks to further expose. The film premiered at Sundance this year, and the powerful documentary quickly became the talk of Hollywood. Gibney’s film outlines the church’s origins and Hubbard’s rise to power, but “Going Clear” mainly looks to overwhelm viewers with themes of exploitation and the desire for power.