“Going Clear”: Alex Gibney’s Documentary on Scientology

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. Scott Foundas, Variety, reviewing Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Although at times likened to therapy, in actuality auditing is very different from the kind of therapy most of us know or practice. In fact, The Church of Scientology actually has a mission “to discredit and dismantle the field of psychiatry,” largely via its Citizens Commission on Human Rights. (See Glen Coco‘s “Scientologists Really, Really Hate Psychiatrists,” Vice.)

Directed by Alex Gibney, the new documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is currently in some U.S. theaters, but more viewers will get to see it on HBO, when it premieres in a few days, on March 29th. It’s based on the 2013 bestseller by Lawrence Wright and puts a lot of focus on eight former Scientology members, including Paul Haggis, director of the award-winning movie Crash.

Kurt Loder, Reason.com: “Haggis—who broke with the church over its hostility toward homosexuality (he has two gay daughters)—is joined here by Wright himself, and by a number of other dropouts, among them former Scientology executives, rank-and-file members (including Jason Beghe, star of the TV series Chicago P.D.), and a very talkative PR woman named Sylvia ‘Spanky’ Taylor, once employed at Scientology’s Hollywood Celebrity Center as a handler for John Travolta.”

Melissa Maerz, ew.com:

The film builds upon Wright’s biggest allegations: that Scientology facilitated Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s kids turning against their mother, that it vetted and groomed the actress Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland) to be Cruise’s wife, that it allegedly helped squash rumors about John Travolta’s sexuality. Gibney even scores one scoop that Wright didn’t know about: Cruise had Kidman’s phone tapped after she was labeled a ‘suppressive person.’ But Wright covers controversies that Gibney doesn’t, so it’s the rare archival footage from Scientology’s inner sanctum that makes the film stand apart from the book.

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture, on why or how people fall prey to the “craziness” of Scientology:

…Scientology presents itself initially as a set of tools to help you live a better, freer, more purposeful life. Unlike other religions, it doesn’t actually tell you what its core belief system is until you’ve spent years and years (and, most likely, thousands and thousands of dollars) as a member. It’s only when you ascend ‘The Bridge’ and get to that Operating Thetan level that you’re given the sacred text — L. Ron Hubbard’s handwritten notes explaining humanity’s crazy backstory, about how Earth is a slave planet and how humans were brought here billions of years ago by the intergalactic dictator Xenu, placed in volcanoes, and blown up with hydrogen bombs, etc. (When he finally read Hubbard’s notes, Haggis says he thought, ‘Maybe it’s an insanity test? Maybe if you believe this, they kick you out?’ No such luck.)

Selected Reviews

Melissa Maerz, ew.com: “If Going Clear were a Hollywood thriller, I’d complain that it’s too over-the-top. But this is real life, which is mind-blowing, and as a documentary, it’s disturbingly good.”

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: “The familiar tale of the billion-dollar rise of L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi self-help religion-like philosophy/prank/cash-suck gets urgent, stylish treatment in Alex Gibney’s HBO doc, a fleet and surefooted account of Scientology’s origins, Hubbard’s years at sea escaping U.S. taxes, and the misery and harassment faced by the church’s apostates.”

Leslie Felperin, Hollywood Reporter: “The doc ends on a hopeful note by reporting that according to best estimates the numbers of followers has dwindled to approximately 50,000 at most worldwide…(S)urvivors, ‘suppressive persons’ and the ‘disconnected’ families of people who have suffered from Scientology’s unholy war against its enemies will take enormous comfort in the fact that at least one film has now dared to say what only a few years ago seemed impossible.”

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