Film Review: Going Clear – Scientology and the Prison of Belief


Directed by

  • Alex Gibney


  • Lawrence Wright
  • Mike Rinder
  • Marty Rathbun
  • Paul Haggis

Release Year

  • 2015

For our review of HBO’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, we opted to have two of our critics evaluate it. Consider it an audit.

Blake Goble (BG): Might as well start with a little anecdote, but once upon a time about a million years ago, I did improv classes here in Chicago at The Second City. It’s great for communications skills and just learning how to express yourself, but at one of our shows I was stuck with the audience suggestion of playing Tom Cruise. The audience was asked to name a star “that they hate.” Harsh, but reasonable in 2010. Everyone’s been somewhat in the know of Cruise’s wheelings and dealings for years, especially in Scientology. He’s been so famous for so long, and his films are well-known, but his personal life has been incomplete, hell, downright kooky at best.

So to start I slid out a la Risky Business, and our pianist knew how to do the Bob Seger notes. I just did the couch-jumping thing, the loud, insincere laugh, the consistent plugging of shabby past works like Days of Thunder. Laughing all the way. Mind you, this was a scene about child custody, and Cruise was irrelevant, which made it surreal.

But at one point, my co-performer made a grand statement about worrying over a child and I completely go off in to outer space, asking with a dead face, “Did you just speak ill of Scientology?” Then back to that Cruise laugh and hand clap. The audience seemed to really like it, and I assume it’s because they totally got the fact that Cruise and his lava monster, alien-Jesus religion was pure quackery.

Boy, did Going Clear make me feel justified, not to mention shocked, afraid, and enraged. Scientology’s been the subject of cloak and dagger media for years, but it’s never quite been given a public trial at this level, and goodness is the “religion” disturbing. Alex Gibney’s powerful new doc, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, was absolutely on point.

Dominick Suzanne-Mayer (DS): Scientology always puts the person denigrating it in a weird position, and it’s because no matter how much you know about what an utter sham it is, so many people are so genuinely, earnestly devoted to it as their religion of choice that it’s hard to condemn it without being the person policing the religious practices of others. This and so many other logical loops like it are how Scientology functions by design. Like any cult worth its salt (and let’s be frank here, it’s a cult by almost any definition), Scientology keeps you in by creating and nurturing your dependence on it. It can give you the keys to life, connections to various big-ticket industries, a sense of calm and peace and, perhaps most importantly, the idea that you are in true control of your universe. So much of L. Ron Hubbard’s core doctrine is built around that: man is full of spirits and can purge them and become his own self-styled God figure. In that regard, at least, Hubbard was successful. He did.

Going Clear is powerful not for its approach to the material, which as per Alex Gibney is hyper-informative but just a little dry. The power comes from hearing people of substantial onetime importance to the church speak to what brought them in (almost always some kind of idealism), what kept them there, and which of Scientology’s many sins ultimately drove them out. Because the film solely features accounts from the excommunicated, Scientology will discredit its many scathing accounts of closed-door atrocities as the ramblings of the embittered. But they’re not. Paul Haggis, in particular, powerfully accounts for the ways in which Scientology attempted to destroy his family and humiliate him for speaking out against its practices under Hubbard successor David Miscavige, who by the film’s accounts is literally Satan.

BG: Walking away from Going Clear, I thought Haggis’s first-hand accounts and explanations were the best work that he’s ever done. He’s frank, pragmatic, and just plain rational in regards to Scientology’s condemnation of homosexuality. John Travolta’s former liaison’s accounts of child abuse are downright shocking (her experiences are naturally denied by Travolta’s representation). Jason Beghe of Chicago P.D. comes off as plain likeable in his no-nonsense accounts of Scientology’s utter bullshit.

And what of the Scientologists themselves? Travolta shows up, in a 1999 EPK from The General’s Daughter, asking what faith besides Scientology operates on joy as a concept. The sane answer might be “nearly all doctrines,” but it’s much more fun and frustrating to wince at Travolta’s gibberish. Remember Tom Cruise’s mid-2000s Scientology video that nearly gutted him professionally? It’s here, and even more baffling than ever.

Dom, when a faith’s leader goes by the motto “next stop, infinity,” the only rational utterance of that phrase would be from either Buzz Lightyear or an author of science fiction. Uttered from Hubbard’s reptilian mouth, Gibney has the nerve to publicly dare people to ask: what in the hell is an OST III, and what does that matter?

DS: I don’t even know where to start when it comes to unpacking the most unsettling things about the film. It might be the commonplace practice of using auditing sessions as blackmail, though. Auditing is psychotherapy as interpreted by a man who a) didn’t want to call it psychotherapy and b) took notions of auras and vibrations to some deeply weird places. Essentially, auditing is a self-critique in which people are compelled to wear themselves down until they find the root causes of their worries, as interpreted by a meter that purports to read the weight of their thoughts. However, somebody else is in the room with you and all of this is recorded and kept in a file. It’s like going to confession at church, if most churches were in the practice of turning around and divulging everything that came out of your mouth to your friends and family if you ever upset them for any reason.

BG: That’s the hot-blooded power of Gibney’s doc. What you thought of dry, I thought of as frank, angry, and more importantly, right. Going Clear may present the facts as cleanly as possible, but the emotional response the film nurtures is pure and devastating. For a short-handed account, Gibney gets a lot in, and makes you want to let it all out. How could people cheat taxes, or market false history and technology like this? Didn’t Hitler use the same kinds of aesthetic ploys and communicative singularity? When Gibney flashes white screens acknowledging that someone left the church, it gets the same kind of response a big touchdown might: pure elation and excitement.

Gibney’s a smart documentarian, he always has been, but what distinguishes Going Clear is its subject matter. Like his Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, or The Armstrong Lie, the material is so heated before Gibney gets to it that it’s impossible not to get hot under the collar yourself. Whether that speaks more to the controversial nature of Hubbard’s cult, or just Gibney’s good taste in topics, Going Clear is stupefying.

Dom, was Going Clear successful because of the subject, or because of Gibney’s dauntless outline and facts?

DS: I think it’s a triumph of content over form, as much as anything. You could eliminate even more of Going Clear and still have it play like an early contender for the scariest film of 2015, just by dint of what’s put on display. We haven’t even touched on the church’s controversial policy of “disconnection,” in which members are encouraged to sever all ties with anybody labeled a “suppressive person,” which based on Going Clear’s arguments is apparently anybody who says the slightest cross word about the church or appears to run the risk in any way of turning the faithful wayward.It’s genuinely eerie, the number of tricks the film touches on that Scientology employs to keep its members in line. The “Squirrel Busters,” which as far as I can gather is a group of real-life Scientology trolls who harass ex-members if they go public about their experiences, is one of the more eerie things I’ve seen in a film in a long time, documentary or not. It’s just dead-eyed people spewing insults and doctrine in equal measure, an only marginally less hateful Westboro for those who left the cult.

I think what’s most unsettling about the film’s approach to the material is the sheer amount that had to be left out. Tony Ortega, one of the more prominent talking heads featured throughout, has been hounding and reporting on Scientology for years, and there are stories that Going Clear doesn’t address. That’s probably the scariest idea the film offers among many: that this rabbit hole goes so much deeper than a two-hour documentary, even one paced as relentlessly as this one is, could possibly illustrate.

BG: And let’s not forget the whereabouts of David Miscavige’s wife over the last seven years, something Going Clear doesn’t get to. Rumor has it, and it is pure rumor, that she disobeyed Miscavige’s explicit wills. How? Who knows? Gibney compelled me to look into it.

DS: If nothing else, the film accomplishes its seeming main goal: to get people talking. I’ve heard more discussion from people now terrified of Scientology and enraged by its apparent billions of dollars in slush fund holdings than ever before, more than even when that Cruise video leaked or he jumped on Oprah’s couch.

BG: Interestingly, the abundance of promoted Scientology Tweets by the church in my Twitter feed of late leads me to believe they’re irked. There’s even a whole host of anti-Gibney promotions showing up. Because that’s how you assassinate character: promoting Tweets.

DS: Do you think the film set out to destroy the institution, or simply to expose it and start the discussion? Because it might end up doing both. Or not, because the organization has already protected itself against these stories for years. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the to-be-released documentary Welcome to Leith, about a white supremacist attempting to take over a small North Dakota town. Both films ask a really difficult question that at some point we’re all going to have to address: what can we do when the First Amendment is exploited by people looking to do harm for profit or sick ideology, and it protects them? Since throwing out one of the core tenets of our country isn’t an option, what else is there to do?