Sundance 2015: ‘Going Clear’ is intelligent rabble-rousing at its best

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Clear

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Written & Directed by Alex Gibney
USA, 2015

Alex Gibney might be the most important documentarian working today.  In Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, he immerses us in the bizarre world of Scientology.  Exhaustively detailed, Gibney intertwines testimonials and archival footage to pull back the curtain on this shadowy religious organization.  Darkly hilarious and endlessly fascinating, Going Clear is investigative filmmaking at its best.

Forget everything you think you know about Scientology; Alex Gibney wants to show you things are far worse than you ever imagined.  He painstakingly chronicles the long history of abuse, coercion, and litigation used to control its members and rebuff its enemies.  Despite all of the cloak and dagger surveillance, however, the pervading message that emerges from Going Clear is that Scientology is little more than a glorified tax shelter.  Nothing glamorous, just a bunch of tax cheats who don’t want to pay their fair share.

Current CEO David Miscavige makes you almost sentimental for the days when founder and godhead, L. Ron Hubbard, was steering the Scientology ship.  While both men’s primary objective was securing tax exempt status for the Church (which Miscavige finally accomplished in 1993 after suing the IRS into submission), Hubbard was at least a true believer in his own ministry.  He personally tested all the gizmos and gadgets foisted upon its members, which include many of Hollywood’s power elite.  Former members, such as writer-director Paul Haggis and actor Jason Beghe, relate their spiritual odysseys, which began with ecstatic enlightenment and ended with disillusionment and dread.  As the horror stories of past members accumulate, you become even more curious about what first drew them to the Church.

Since his incendiary 2005 documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Alex Gibney has been rocking boats and rattling cages with his special brand of meticulous fact slinging.  Here, he uses firsthand testimonials from former members, along with archival footage, primarily of Hubbard, to bring his target into glaring relief.  It can be exhausting to ingest two hours of non-stop information, so Gibney mixes in some jet-black humor to keep things popping.  He knows that for all the menacing characters dotting the Scientology landscape, it’s also pretty silly stuff.  Aliens and spirit beings comingle with energy meters and big money to anchor a doctrine that could only come from the imagination of a science fiction writer (which Hubbard was).

Gibney keeps his pacing brisk and his visuals varied.  We get videos, animations, graphs, and terrify stories culled from hundreds of hours of interview footage.  Based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Gibney’s film starts with an in-depth and surprising look at L. Ron Hubbard; the man behind the myth.  Included is some fascinating footage of Hubbard on his yacht, a sort of floating tax shelter, as he grants a rare interview while absconded off the coast of Grenada.  It’s illuminating stuff, as we struggle to see how this goofy-toothed and somewhat leering character managed to jumpstart an entire religion.

Not surprisingly, Gibney spends a lot of time highlighting the Church’s most famous members, Hollywood heavyweights John Travolta and Tom Cruise.  It’s hard to know how to feel about Travolta, who Gibney insinuates is powerless to leave the Church for fear they will leak incriminating information about him.  Cruise, on the other hand, seems a more willing accomplice to the Church’s meddling.  If what Gibney asserts about the treatment of his ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, is true, Cruise’s complicity in her downfall borders on criminal negligence.

As a historical document on The Church of Scientology, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is essential viewing.  Gibney takes us deep inside an organization whose membership declines year after year while its financial holdings continue to escalate into the billions of dollars.  Clearly, something doesn’t add up.  Gibney throws a lot of information at the screen, but he never forgets to keep his visuals entertaining and the conversation lively.  Jason Beghe, in particular, is a hoot as the foul-mouthed rabble-rouser who came to his senses after years of brainwashing.  Going Clear is a perfectly-crafted example of passionate, intelligent opposition.

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