It took me a while to actually put up something on Going Clear, but I just had to with the recent events concerning a certain religious organization here in the Philippines. I’m not insinuating anything, but it did remind me that I still haven’t posted anything on this documentary, which is perhaps one of the best of 2015. This film is meant to send chills down spines and raise eyebrows regarding Scientology and the C-word (no, not THAT C-word, the other C-word).
Alex Gibney is a prolific documentary filmmaker who also directed other amazing documentaries such as Taxi to the Dark Side and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is based on the book “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” by Lawrence Wright.
NOTE: This is an extensive review of Going Clear, so there may be spoilers. But then again, it’s not much of a spoiler if you are aware of Scientology’s history and ongoing activities. Also, since it criticizes a religion, consider yourself warned if you’re easily offended by such material.
Similarly to the film Collapse, there’s the stylistic use of a typewriter to show various jargon on-screen, which is symbolic of L. Ron Hubbard’s vocation as a writer. There is also prodigious use of archival footage and images of paraphernalia that works well with the rest of the film and shows more of what’s inside Scientology.
The atmosphere in this film is all about bringing the audience to somewhere like the Twilight Zone. Its use of music and silence is well-done, with the music establishing the “sci-fi-ness” of the subject and the silence lets audiences have the information sink in.
Going Clear has a clear agenda as an exposé, so it’s far from unbiased. It pulls no punches in depicting the organization as fraudulent, especially leading up to the middle of the film. Therefore, consider yourself warned if the material and its treatment is in any way offensive to your sensibilities, especially if you’re part of a similar organization.
The interviews with ex-Scientologists make up most of the film, with them talking about their experiences with the movement-turned-religion. It also tells the life of L. Ron Hubbard (LRH), his background as a science/pulp fiction writer, his book Dianetics, promoting its ideas, creating a religion out of it, and then his descent into madness late in his life.
Telling his life serves as foundation for its real purpose, which is to show the webs upon webs that Scientology and its current leader David Miscavige have entangled themselves in. It also explains the jargon and various devices used by Scientologists, like the e-meter (a third of a polygraph machine), being “clear”, “subversive persons”, “thetans”, and so on. It also told how LRH evaded the IRS and his powers of persuasion.
Then it gets to LRH’s descent into madness through gradually believing his own bullshit, then passing away. Someone else had to take the founder’s place, which is where David Miscavige comes in. His rise to power, his campaign against the IRS, and his favoring of the new poster boy Tom Cruise were all detailed. The editing is effective in reflecting the frantic and insane nature of the higher and otherworldly beliefs of the religion.
A big part of Scientology’s success is “auditing” with the use of e-meters, explained here in great length. You learn about how people get hooked in by the initial effectiveness of auditing sessions, how auditors collect intimate personal information and hang them over members like a Sword of Damocles, and how it’s then used to induce confusion and self-doubt in members to coax them into the church’s whim.
The part with Scientology’s war with the IRS is also very interesting. Following that are the stories of John Travolta and Tom Cruise as poster boys, although the way it concludes with Scientology laying low and avoiding the limelight more does seem a bit iffy. David Miscavige going to the shadows at this point makes the timing of Going Clear’s release seem rather convenient; perhaps that’s just how it is.
Another important part of the narrative is telling the breaking point and exit of each ex-member who was interviewed here. They illustrate the effects that the church had on their families and personal lives, the money they had to “offer”, internal conflicts and manipulations within the church, the use of the “suppressive person” label and “disconnection” as a method of instilling fear and control, and what made each of them leave.
The narrator only comes in at the 11-minute mark after a rather lengthy introduction with re-enactments and interviewees setting the tone by telling how they first got involved with Scientology. It’s a bit of an information dump as the interviewees drop terms and information that would be explained later, but that’s mostly because of the nature of the organization.
The way it was structured makes it seem like it’d divided in two main acts—the L. Ron Hubbard act and the David Miscavige act. They can also be divided into the John Travolta and Tom Cruise chapters, then the “we need to hide from now on” chapter. This chronological order makes it easy to follow the narrative of the film, from the history and the initial boom of the movement to becoming a full-blown cult.
A good example of how well the film has been edited is at the part when the interviewees are explaining how an e-meter works. They re-enact a bit of a typical auditing session in Scientology. Upon going “That there, what was that?”, it shows a spike on the e-meter.
That sums up what an auditing session is, which is coaxing the subject to spill his/her guts. The result is a catharsis, similar to a psychotherapy session even though Scientology disavows psychiatry. How the film shows the process is done better than most other explanations I’ve seen thus far. In that way, the film has accomplished one half of its goal.
The latter part with ex-Scientologists being harassed may be true, but how it’s shown makes the film fall a bit flat in tone. You get all of this juicy details with the history and insider info of Scientology, then it ends with a bunch of goofy people in matching t-shirts visiting people’s houses without permission. While it’s still crucial information, it’s rather stale compared to preceding parts. But then again, perhaps it’s because that’s just how ridiculous the whole thing really seems from the outside.
Perhaps that very last scene with one of the interviewees being thanked for her cooperation, in which she immediately responds with “You’re welcome”, is a really good way to end Going Clear. That was certainly the right decision on the production side.
- Well-paced chronological structure
- Sets the tone well with background audio (and lack of)
- Tells L. Ron Hubbard's in-depth life story as foundation
- Explains Scientologist jargon, devices, and organizations
- Good editing lets interviews show and not just tell
- Lots of "insider information"
- Great use of archival footage
- Seems to pull no punches
- Obviously biased against Scientology (in case you care about impartiality)
- Last part involving harassment isn't as strong; ends a bit flat
Eight means great. Going Clear is one of those documentaries that I'll most likely watch over and over again. While I have my reservations with the last part of the film, I have to say that it's definitely a film that does what it set out to do with punctuation. It also showed L. Ron Hubbard in ways few have ever seen him in this generation and how the current state of Scientology is like a mix of pure white and rusty brown.