Religion is a subject no one really wants to talk about. Not only is it a touchy subject for many but it has caused many heartaches when things get too passionate. What makes a ‘new’ religion like Scientology (‘new’ in relative terms) intriguing is we are seeing how a theology grows from the very beginning. Considering what kind of person L. Ron Hubbard was at the time it is fascinating how he was able to create such a huge movement. But what documentarian Alex Gibney shows in his adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear is that a lot of sinister things had to occur to make them so successful.
Like the book it is named after, Going Clear has Alex Gibney going in-depth with Scientology in both its origins and how it expanded. By getting countless archived and behind the scenes footage we witness the mindset of L. Ron Hubbard and the men & women who were former Scientologists. It is interesting how, for a group so secretive these days, Gibney was able to garner so many interview clips of Hubbard or even the lavish ceremonial events of recent years. The only thing that is slightly disappointing is that Gibney sort of shy’s away from Hubbard’s more horrific backstory such as kidnapping his own child. The documentary matter-of-factly covers these dark moments and, unlike Wright’s book, it would have made more sense to cover Hubbard’s backstory in detail considering how extensive it later goes into current Chairman David Miscavige.
The tone of Going Clear evolves as the film goes on which makes the latter portions hit the right note. At first we feel Scientology is some sort of ‘kooky’ cult as we learn the bizarre terms and mythology of the religion. There is a particularly spectacular montage of the film explaining Scientology’s ‘extraterrestrial’ origins of the Earth and it comes across incredibly trippy. In fact the more former or current Scientologists explain, in detail, the ideals of the church it becomes harder and harder not to snicker at how ridiculous it all sounds. Give Alex Gibney credit though for not letting himself state these things are ridiculous and actually giving serious inquiries on what makes this group tick.
What Alex Gibney does in the second half of this documentary though is go full on investigative mode in the sinister motives of the church. Whether it is the uncomfortable relationship between Chairman David Miscavige and Tom Cruise or the brutality the lower members of the church receive it all becomes quite disturbing to listen too. Of course all of this is ‘alleged’ since everyone who still works within the church has refuted all of these claims. But when we see their key victory of beating the IRS to be considered a true religion it becomes all the more infuriating that people may be in harm’s way but our own government cannot do anything about it. Again, Alex Gibney never picks a side and just gives us the facts but it becomes harder and harder to laugh at how ‘silly’ this religion is when more controversy arises.
Going Clear shows us, whether in book or film form, the dangers of when a religion becomes mainstream. Whether L. Ron Hubbard meant to or not Scientology has become a worldwide religion that has influenced many people including major players in the Hollywood community. Who’s to say though that other religions such as Christianity or Islam did not go through the same trials when they first started? Alex Gibney states as much in the middle of this documentary but in the end there does seem to be some sort of enlightened meaning at the end of it all. Going Clear shows how greed & intimidation can not only shape a religion but showcases how ugly it can be as well.