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Why you need to see Going Clear, the new documentary on Scientology

Alex Gibney's new documentary Going Clear takes on the Church of Scientology.
Alex Gibney's new documentary Going Clear takes on the Church of Scientology.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Those who've long followed news and rumors of the Church of Scientology's abusive practices aren't going to find much new in Alex Gibney's searing documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. The film, which makes its television debut on Sunday, March 29, at 8 pm Eastern on HBO, is based on Lawrence Wright's book of the same name. In terms of revelations, it can't top that terrific tome. But in terms of emotional impact, it packs a wallop.



It's one thing to read the horror stories Wright uncovered in his investigation into the church. But it's quite another to see the faces of former members, who often gave up decades of their lives to the organization, who may still have friends and family involved, people they are effectively cut off from completely. Their voices catch, or their eyes glisten with tears that don't quite fall. It's enormously effective.

If Wright's book was a blistering polemic, then Gibney's film is a great companion piece that shows the human side of a slow-motion tragedy.

Investigating a corrupt organization

Going Clear the film takes a much sharper focus on certain specific allegations about the church — and particularly about two of its most famous members, actors John Travolta and Tom Cruise — than the book did. This is understandable, given that Gibney has just two hours to work with, where Wright had hundreds of pages.

Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney (HBO)

But that also fits into Gibney's overall mission as a documentarian. The director is most compelled by stories of individuals who are ground up and spit out by institutions. In his best films — particularly his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (about an Afghani man detained by the US in the War on Terror) and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (about the sexual abuse of deaf boys by Catholic priests) — he tackles the tiny ways individuals try, and often fail, to take back their own power in the face of overwhelming institutional opposition.

Thus, Going Clear, with its long line of former Scientologists expressing their grievances, fits snugly into Gibney's filmography. He's less interested in the vast array of charges that have been leveled against the church and more interested in the way screenwriter and director Paul Haggis's face shifts ever so slightly when he talks about the way the church wanted him to choose between his daughters and his faith. (Since Haggis is being interviewed for this film, you can guess which side of that equation won in the end.)

Gibney's thesis is simple. Scientology's operating principles, he argues throughout, are such that the church has always found a way to dodge any troubles or accusations, sometimes through legal means and sometimes by making those troubles and accusations disappear into one of its many facilities scattered throughout the United States.

Some of the most troubling accusations leveled by former members involve a place called "the hole," where people are sent for unspecified punishments for unspecified amounts of time. There's something oddly juvenile about the whole idea — as if people the church is upset with are being put in time out — until you realize the sheer gravity of what these former members are saying.

What's most impressive about Going Clear is how it maintains a steady calm. Nothing ever boils over too early or too easily. Instead, the film's case gets more and more damning, building to a sustained emotional pitch that lasts for roughly the final half hour. Gibney is one of the best documentary directors out there for basic construction of narrative, and the slowly mounting structure of Going Clear proves that over and over again.

A long list of who wouldn't talk

The obvious rebuttal the church has been making to Gibney's film — and Wright's book — is that no one bothered to get its side of the story, that clearly a work of journalism should try to get both sides or else it's biased. As if to get out in front of these claims, Gibney concludes the movie with a list of those who refused to be interviewed for the film, including Cruise, Travolta, Scientology leader David Miscavige, and Cruise's ex-wife Nicole Kidman (whose influence provides the focus for much of the section on Cruise).

In its own way, this list of non-speakers is damning in a way the church probably doesn't anticipate — particularly given its incredibly clumsy PR campaign meant to dissuade viewers from taking the film seriously. The church is a hugely secretive organization, but hugely secretive organizations are having a harder time keeping things behind closed doors in the age when the complete Scientology mythology is just a Wikipedia search away.

In that sense, the most salient complaint against the film — that it doesn't really make any new revelations or say anything that can't be found after a few hours of Googling — sort of isn't the point. The point is that Gibney and his collaborators have synthesized all of this information, put it in one place, and turned it into an emotional arc that will leave you as seething with fury at the church as any of those interviewed for the film.

The supposed "bias" in Gibney's film, then, becomes its whole point. This isn't a movie about trying to win over Scientologists on the fence. It's a battering ram meant to break down the walls surrounding those secrets to throw as much light on them as possible.

Going Clear makes its TV debut Sunday, March 29, on HBO at 8 pm Eastern.