Also known as the documentary that launched a thousand lawsuits, HBO’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015, dir. Alex Gibney) is based on a book of the same name by Lawrence Wright. This documentary, which has received a tidal wave of criticism from Church of Scientology members, details the questionable beginnings and certainly controversial current state of Scientology, with ex-members telling their stories and explaining the intricacies of their former beliefs. Director Alex Gibney focuses his critical eye on church founder L. Ron Hubbard, and current leader David Miscavige, in order to shed light on the organisation and its current state of affairs.
Sometimes there is nothing creepier than watching a documentary that feels like its subject shouldn’t even be real. Disclaimer: I’m not religious, and pretty much all religion creeps me out in some way. But this was an entirely different kettle of fish. I’m not planning on passing any judgement on people who choose to follow Scientology, but it is of note that this documentary doesn’t try particularly hard to make the beliefs of Scientology look crazy. Factual information is presented in what appears to be a neutral manner; aside from the ex-members, some of whom are of high profile, who continually assert that the whole thing is nuts and that they can’t believe they stuck with it for so long. There is a big question that runs throughout this documentary – is Scientology a genuine religion, or is it a cult, or is it a plain old moneymaking scam? I believe each viewer will pretty quickly form their own opinion as to the answer of this question after watching this documentary.
Creatively, Going Clear is a success. Between talking-head interviews with ex-members, archival footage is intercut in clever ways to inform the viewer of the history and establishment of Scientology, and is often used to humorous or iconic effect. There is one sequence which I particularly enjoyed, which illustrated the Scientology creation myth with amazing visuals that looked like a scrapbook-maker’s nightmare, or like Dadaist newspaper clipping art mashed together. There is also one sequence which uses music and advertisements very humorously, which reminded me of the way similar media was used in the highly acclaimed documentary Blackfish (2013). The film’s motif of using a typewriter to define jargon and Scientology terminology that the layman might not otherwise understand, was not only useful and informative but particularly clever given L. Ron Hubbard’s beginnings as a science fiction writer prior to establishing the Church of Scientology
Above all, Going Clear is a fascinating exploration of a group that has captured the attention and wallets of a lot of people, seemingly for its own gain. It includes a disturbing analysis of the ways in which one large group has manipulated a lot of people, with a truly intriguing exploration of the ways in which Scientology is able to do so. I think HBO must be wearing a suit of titanium armour in order to protect itself from the litigiousness of the Church of Scientology, but it’s also worth noting that some elements of the Scientology story are never even mentioned (I don’t think they even mention Katie Holmes’ sketchy relationship with Tom Cruise), so there must be an element of HBO protecting itself by omission. Going Clear is a very disturbing watch, but is also highly engaging and interesting. I haven’t really stopped thinking about this since I watched it, which may be a form of brainwashing in and of itself, or, it could be the sign of a truly effective documentary.