Early on in Alex Gibney’s startling and controversial documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the film discusses the Sea Organization, one of L. Ron Hubbard’s various and sundry components of his enterprise. A work contract for the Sea Organization flits across the screen, with one specific sentence in one specific paragraph highlighted: “Therefore, I contract myself to the Sea Organization for the next billion years.” It should be noted that this is not a sentence written lightly. It is not a joke. It is one of the many moments in the film’s two hours that gives pause, makes one wonder just how any of this would make sense or be understandable to anyone on this Earth. In some ways, Scientology has been America’s worst-kept secret, a giant, shadowy organization who are almost assuredly a cult to everyone outside its grasp and despite that has tax-exempt status with the US government. It is just as known for its aggressive, bullying tactics against any and all of its critics and detractors as it is known for its mega movie star acolytes (John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, et al) as it is for its almost psychotically insane Origin Story (as expertly lampooned on South Park). Perhaps because of their full-court press against criticism and their penchant for litigation, there has not been much by way of blow-out exposes on the subject. That is until now.
Gibney, the director of such documentaries as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and The Armstrong Lie has patterned his film around the book of same name written by Lawrence Wright, one of his central interview subjects. Understandably, Gibney is limited to direct interviews from those who managed to extricate themselves from the church, such as the Oscar-winning screenwriter/director of Crash Paul Haggis, and various ranking members of the organization, many of whom were deeply important cogs in the machine before they had had enough. Each of them have their own distressing story to tell, though most affecting is Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, who had become a friend and confidant of John Travolta in the early days, only to have that relationship soured due to the increasingly thorny politics of the church. These testimonials are peppered through what is essentially a chronological tale of Scientology as a concept, beginning predominantly as a biography of L. Ron Hubbard and his journey from pulp science fiction writer to reclusive church leader and transitioning through to its more Hollywood-rooted current incarnation under the stewardship of David Miscavige.
Technically, this is a pretty standard documentary set-up in the classic talking head style. Gibney uses a mix of interviews and narration to weave his tale, cutting between the people and exterior/archival footage of the members and functions of Scientology. He has a respectable amount of footage to choose from, be it early interviews with Hubbard before he withdrew from the public eye, or an annual Scientology gala that represents the height of excess, or older interviews with Travolta or Tom Cruise’s infamous turtleneck-baring interview extolling the church’s virtues.. There are no current interviews from those still in the church, because of course there are not, but between the footage and the interviews, he presents a compelling vision of what it is like within the confines of this cult-like organization. It is compelling because it is so thoroughly strange and unbelievable, so baldly absurdist in its mythology, that it is fiercely interesting just figuring out how these people go along with the psychosis in the first place.
Gibney uses the motif of the e-meter to tie the film’s visual language together in quite a compelling way. The opening titles feel markedly David Fincher-y, specifically feeling like a mix of the titles of Panic Room and Gone Girl, and the way he frames the title cards that introduce each interviewee with the hashes of the e-meter create this sense of the overarching oppression of Scientology invading these people’s lives. The film is at its best when establishing the juxtaposition between classes within Scientology, cross-cutting between awful stories of “The Hole” (what is essentially an internment camp for members of the church who cross Miscavige in some way) and the imposing blue building that almost looks like a model, and shots of Tom Cruise at some movie premier or talking at their New York gala. It is nothing if not manipulative, but Gibney makes his point forcefully and it is tough not to believe his narrative. A Scientologist would likely be outraged, but that is assuredly the point.
The story weaved in Going Clear, that of a bizarre little tax shelter created by a middling science fiction writer turned into a multinational juggernaut of control by his successor is a compelling one. And while Gibney has never been the most formally challenging documentarian, he does know how to get his point across in an engaging way. It is arguable that he might never make a film as immediate and devastating as The Act of Killing or Let the Fire Burn, films that combine outrageous subjects with daring form, but that does not mean he does not have a place in the genre or serve to belittle his achievements. Even if at times Going Clear loses a bit of its momentum due to the repetition of its style, the story of Scientology is so audaciously insane that the lag never lasts long. It is an important story to tell in that it has never really been done on this scale before, and for that reason alone it is considerably worthwhile.