Though the lid was blown off the Church of Scientology long ago, Alex Gibney’s powder-keg documentary, “Going Clear,” should certainly rattle the walls, if not shake them to their very foundations. Gibney had an excellent blueprint to work from in Lawrence Wright’s exhaustively researched 2013 nonfiction bestseller (from which the film takes its title), but he’s also added much fascinating material here, including new interviews and proprietary Scientology video footage that has to be seen to be disbelieved. A hot ticket at Sundance, “Going Clear” should have no trouble maintaining its must-see buzz through its HBO premiere in March and beyond.
The prolific Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God”) excels at untangling complex systems and institutions, and at showing us the human faces behind scandal-making headlines. Unsurprisingly, “Going Clear” is weighted toward candid, impassioned interviews with ex-Scientologists who share their stories in the hope of dissuading others from following in their footsteps. Some are alumni of Wright’s book, like the disarming Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, a longtime worker at Scientology Hollywood “Celebrity Center” (where she was appointed John Travolta’s personal handler), and “Crash” director Paul Haggis, who made waves when he renounced the church in 2009. Others are unique to the film, like Sara Goldberg, who obtained the church’s highest spiritual designation (Operating Thetan Level 8), only to quit in 2013 after being asked to “disconnect” from her own son, who had been deemed a “suppressive person.”
Considering that Wright (a producer here, as well as an interview subject) had more than 400 pages to spin his serpentine narrative and Gibney a mere two hours of screen time, a lot has fallen by the wayside. Yet it’s impressive just how much detail “Going Clear” manages to pack in, especially with regard to the early days of the church under its founder, the sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. Among the juiciest bits: onscreen comparisons showing how Hubbard refashioned bits of his pulp novels into his Scientology dogma; excerpts from the letters of Hubbard’s second wife, Sara Northrup Hollister (voiced in the film by actress Sherry Stringfield); and footage from Hubbard’s few TV interviews, in which it’s possible to see just how much his look and language informed the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”
Wright has said he set out not to write an expose, but to understand how Scientology worked, and Gibney’s film is driven by similar aims. Starting with Haggis, the expert witnesses recount how they were first drawn to the church by its promises of success, happiness and the vanquishing of personal demons; the initial euphoria of the “auditing” process (by which members are taught to rid themselves of painful memories from their past, and their past lives); and their gradual realization — many years and thousands of dollars later — that the emperor Hubbard wasn’t wearing any clothes. (In Haggis’ case, being presented with a set of handwritten “secret” documents outlining Hubbard’s alternative view of the origins of the universe was a major red flag.)
Gibney contrasts those stories with the testimonials of several former high-ranking Scientology executives (including church PR spokesman Mike Rinder and Mark “Marty” Rathbun, onetime right hand to church leader David Miscavige), who elucidate the various strategies developed by the church to keep its sheep firmly in the flock, and to silence critics. Hardly immune to such abuses themselves, these erstwhile insiders recount hair-raising tales of years spent confined to “the hole” — a series of filthy double-wide trailers on Scientology’s “Gold Base” property in Riverside County, Calif., that functioned as a sort of concentration camp for perceived enemies of the deeply paranoid Miscavige.
Fascinating statistics abound: the slave wages paid to Scientology staffers; the diminishing number of active church members (estimated now to be around 50,000); and the exponentially increasing worth of the organization’s vast global real-estate holdings (said to be around $3 billion). Ample screen time is also devoted to the church’s complex relationship with its biggest celebrity cheerleader, Tom Cruise (sans any new revelations), and its protracted 1990s fight against the Internal Revenue Service to restore its tax-exempt status — a victory (secured in 1993) that absolved Scientology of a $1 billion tax debt and afforded it vast protection from prosecution under the religious freedoms of the First Amendment. When the news was announced, the Scientology elite celebrated with a massive rally in L.A., seen here in video footage that suggests the Golden Globe Awards as staged by Leni Riefenstahl.
At the heart of it all, Gibney has made a great film about the dangers of blind faith or, as the subtitle of “Going Clear” puts it, “the prison of belief” — a phenomenon hardly unique to Scientology, and whose consequences are all too apparent in today’s headlines. For Scientologists, going clear refers to a coveted status awarded to those who have completed a certain level of auditing. But for the men and women on screen here, it means something else: reclaiming their own voices and demanding to be heard.