HBO Documentary Films’ recent release, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief has hit like a jolt of truth to mass audiences. The film is adapted by filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) from author Lawrence Wright’s superb history of the Church of Scientology, a religion synonymous with pushing Tom Cruise over the edge into kooky territory. Wright’s book of almost the same name features a dizzying amount of research into the church’s sordid history. Pulling from testimony of former members, secret memoirs and even passages of correspondence between famed black magic practitioner Aleister Crowley and rocket scientist Jack Parsons. Wright’s book reveals the religion’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, to be a pathological liar driven by delusions of grandeur. His legacy is carried on today by serious Scientologist and comic book villain David Miscavige.
Wright’s research amounts to much more than a scathing indictment of the church, though. He seeks earnest answers about religion. Why do believers believe? When faced with such doubt, what keeps them faithful? Gibney’s film, frankly, fails to ask,let alone answer any of those questions. And really, it shouldn’t be faulted for that! Film is not a medium that lends itself to the level of thorough and complete exploration that a book does. This is why so many Oscar bait biopics are lame and forgettable. They try desperately to cram 500+pages worth of history into two hours and end up with a milquetoast, glossy overview of a person’s life. Going Clear the film, then, should not be judged on how completely it investigates its subject, but rather on how well it can convey the emotion surrounding its subject. This is the true strength of film as a medium, and it’s where I expected the film to most impress me. However, on that front, Gibney’s film falls a bit short.
Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige all possess a propensity to hurt real people in disturbing ways. This is the big problem with Scientology as a religion. It’s not the whacky creation myth or absurd “leveling” scheme used to manipulate its followers into dedicating their lives and finances to the church. It’s the bullying tactics the religion employs to control and silence critics inside and outside of the church that make it a substantial threat.And this is where Gibney should have looked to find the soul of his film. Instead, he tries frantically to stuff his film full of the history that makes Scientology fascinating. That’s all well and good, but the book he is adapting already did that exquisitely, so it is essentially a fool’s errand.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that many people will not read Wright’s book, therefore Gibney’s film is exposing a much larger audience to Scientology’s dubious practices.Yet, this could have been far more effective if it had been carried by more than just three or four scenes that wield any significant emotional punch. Gibney’s goal in adapting this work should have been to reveal the human toll left in the wake of Scientology’s march to power, not to reproduce Wright’s book as closely as possible.
I suspect that this was not just a creative shortcoming, though. HBO rather infamously hired 160 lawyers to scrutinize the film for any material that might excite the notoriously litigious church, and I wager that a lot of the more emotionally charged material was sacrificed as a result. This is really unfortunate because it causes the film to come off as dry and overly formal, incapable even of laughing at a church-produced music video celebrating the court decision that granted it religious protection. The embarrassing video is so bad that when SNL parodied it, they barely had to change any of its cringe-worthy aesthetics. It is likely the looming threat of legal action forced Gibney and his team to rely more on rigid fact, which can always hold up in court, over more informal emotion that could be manipulated by any sharp lawyer.
This is the film’s greatest weakness, but it doesn’t prevent Gibney’s take on the work from excelling in ways Wright’s book never could. The film is punctuated with archival footage taken from the church’s records that offer a jaw-dropping look at just how weird the religion is. The film is populated with bizarre scenes that defy explanation within a religious context. Take for example the oddly Nazi-like gathering that depicts David Miscavige dwarfed before a golden altar that does not deflate the criticism that the church is obscenely wealthy. His followers turn in unison to face the wall-sized portrait of a creepy Ron Hubbard, as they offer a salute that is not just vaguely fascist, but unsettling in the way that only large cultic gatherings can be. The crowd chants, “The war is over!” repeatedly, proclaiming victory over the IRS in the landmark case that cemented the church’s religious status. The scene feels less like a congregation and more like an ominous meeting of bloodthirsty fanatics eager to stamp out all who oppose them.
These images do more than just frighten. They inform the viewer of the Church of Scientology’s true status as a faux religion that abuses its followers to gain wealth and power. Gibney is wise to pepper his film with these and other jarring visuals, and likewise, is equally wise to hold back from pointing a righteous finger at them. He doesn’t want to tell you how blatant the church’s deception is, he wants you to see it and then reach that conclusion independently.
The film can be tedious, but it does a sufficient job of introducing viewers to the absurdity of Scientology and, more importantly, showing the viewer the absurdity of it. The film truly rises to the level of must-see viewing. Maybe Going Clear won’t influence the IRS to reconsider the church’s classification as a protected entity, but at the very least it should dissuade potential converts from considering the religion as anything more than a complex scam with a goofy back-story. And if that happens, Gibney’s film will prove to be a success.