'Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief': Sundance Review

A rigorous, impassioned and timely exposé of Scientology 

Oscar-winning documentary director Alex Gibney takes on the Church of Scientology armed with research from Lawrence Wright's book of the same name.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, director Alex Gibney's documentary about the famously litigious, allegedly religious organization, arrived in Sundance trailing high expectations, wild speculation and a massive amount of anticipation. There were rumors on the streets of Park City that the screening on Sunday, Jan. 25, might be the only time it would ever be shown, that (per executive producer Sheila Nevins) over 160 lawyers examined the film and that there might be protests from angry members of the church. There were even whispers of damning new material about famous followers Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

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As it happened, the event went off with no protests — except from peeved festivalgoers who failed to find a seat at the packed screening — and there was little in the way of revelations that couldn't be found already in Lawrence Wright's 2013 book of (almost) the same name, upon which the film is based. Indeed, there were subjects covered extensively in Wright's book that the film eschewed completely, such as the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Scientology head David Miscavige's wife, Michele Miscavige. But none of that detracts from the fact that this impeccably assembled and argued film represents a brave, timely intervention into debates around the organization that have been simmering for some time.

With the same methodical assiduousness he has displayed in previous investigative films such as the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Gibney provides an authoritative overview of Scientology's history, beliefs and organizational structure, drawn from testimony from some of its most prominent survivors and critics. Supplemented by rare archival footage, almost entirely deployed under the copyright terms of fair use when no news agencies or rights holders agreed to cooperate, the film is an accessible, one-stop shop that will comprehensively counter apathy from viewers who might consider the organization nothing more than a bunch of harmless kooks who believe in mumbo jumbo about intergalactic overlord Xenu and volcanoes.

A significant presence throughout the taking-head–intensive film, author Wright acts as the Virgil to Gibney's Dante as the film works its way through the major issues covered in his book. The early reels survey the strange, fantastical life of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder, whose displays of bonhomous pomposity, gimlet-eyed cunning and vague derangement in the archival footage eerily recall Philip Seymour Hoffman's fictional cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Although devout Scientologists will dutifully pour scorn on the portrait drawn here, Wright and Gibney take pains to paint LRH in an almost sympathetic light, suggesting that even if there was some avaricious calculation in his early ambition to start a religion, his belief in its teachings was ultimately sincere and that his mental imbalance later in life was almost deserving of pity.

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Nevertheless, as Scientology expanded, Hubbard's personal paranoia set the tone for the organization as a whole, and well-known former members such as Mark "Marty" Rathbun, Mike Rinder, Hana Eltringham Whitfield, Sylvia "Spanky" Taylor and Sara Goldberg paint detailed portraits of how abusive and controlling the organization could and still can be. In what's otherwise a fairly grim catalog of cruelties, a midpoint montage of slyly satirical archival footage unpacks just what OT III's get revealed to them as they go "up the bridge," a theology immortally skewered before in a now hard (but not impossible) to find episode of South Park.

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In terms of the much-anticipated exposure of the church's links to celebrities, there's not much here that hasn't surfaced before, but some of the aforementioned ex-members speak very forcefully on camera about their convictions that high-profile members like John Travolta and Tom Cruise surely can't be wholly unaware of the worst accusations against the organization. Accounts of how the church set about undermining Cruise's marriage to Nicole Kidman, who like Cruise and many others declined to speak to the filmmakers, are not unfamiliar, nor are the stories about the organization's efforts to match-make Cruise with a pliant new girlfriend after he and Kidman split for good. Still, the material is sufficiently juicy to attract interest from casual viewers when the film airs on HBO later this year.

Other famous so-called apostates, including writer-director Paul Haggis and actor Jason Beghe (the latter mounting a firecracker display of profanity-laced fury), offer their own personal testimonies and, like the onetime high-ranking officials who appear alongside them, express their shame at willfully shielding themselves from the darker aspects of the organization. No one, however, expresses it with more eloquent simplicity than Rathbun, who, when asked what he regrets most about his time within Scientology, replies, "the entire experience."

In the end, the main point of this deeply admirable documentary is to reach and enlighten that broader audience in a way that far too many publications and media outlets have been afraid to do. Experts who have never been part of the church, such as campaigning journalist Tony Ortega and The Hollywood Reporter's own Kim Masters, offer astute analysis and factual context about why the organization has recruited within the entertainment industry and why it has managed to survive innumerable legal battles — although new cases may turn that tide.

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. That said, an organization that's managed to retain its tax-exempt status based on its classification as a religion according to the IRS, with access to some $3 billion in assets, is still a fearsome beast to contend with. Money like that can buy a lot of lawyers. But survivors, "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.

Production companies: An HBO Documentary Films presentation in association with Sky Atlantic of a Jigsaw production
With: Lawrence Wright, Mark "Marty" Rathbun, Monique Rathbun, Mike Rinder, Jason Beghe, Paul Haggis, Sylvia "Spanky" Taylor, Sara Goldberg, Tony Ortega, Kim Masters
Director: Alex Gibney
Screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Based on the book by Lawrence Wright
Producers: Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright, Kristen Vaurio
Executive producers: Chris Wilson, Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Sam Painter
Editor: Andy Grieve
Music: Will Bates

Sales: HBO

No rating, 120 minutes

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