Alex Gibney's latest documentary may be his most inflammatory yet. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, attempts to go through the clarity, the confusion and malicious harassment faced by those who decide that they cannot remain a part of the fear-mongering and greedy cult of Scientology. Once the scene is set, a kind of quiet tone descends on proceedings and you begin feeling like an interviewer on the other side of the table of the interviewees, diligently taking notes. It's a confessional of sorts and initially there are not just the horror stories you've expected to hear but instead some significant spiritual experiences that form the bedrock of their collective belief. The subjects almost feel like you're poised and ready to ridicule them; like they're having trouble, still, reconciling that anything positive came out of their time in the Church. You get an amazing insight of the level of vulnerability, ambition and yearning to find meaning in the hard lines traced upon all the now older faces. Documentary Filmmaker Gibney has started to emerge from his anonymous and unseen or heard position behind the lens and begun providing his disembodied voice to the interviews and testimonial cross examinations that haven't been present in his previous work. Perhaps this is Gibney evolving toward Errol Morris' more involved but still behind the camera style.
Gibney then transitions from those first hand experiences to an attempt to 'explain' the founder. In the beginning you can see a population collectively grieving the loss of World War Two and the phoenix like rise of a burgeoning, affluent, post-Freud middle class dealing with existential crises. Gibney introduces you to the architect of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard's best-selling work 'Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health,' was completely contrary to the trends of post war psychoanalytical discourse of the 1950s and became subject attack from the scientific community.
After seeing and being a monstrous fan of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's film that was alleged to have been the 'scientology revealed' film, I contended in my original review of the film that viewing didn't require that you look at it through that framework for you to enjoy the film. In the wake of Going Clear, I will provide that caveat that you're bound to enjoy the film, and admire the filmmaker more, if you watch The Master in the wake of Going Clear. You won't be able to stop the flood of images, characters, exchanges that are now being infused with real life events and realise that when Anderson avoided the consequences of direct association it was far more for protection than for the distraction of impossible litigation. There are two scenes in particular that are significantly elevated after viewing Going Clear. They both feature Jesse Plemons, playing Val, Lancaster Dodd's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) son. The first, Val (Plemons) looks in the eyes of Freddy, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and he states the bafflingly obvious; (to paraphrase) that his father is making this all up. The second scene happens later in the film, as Lancaster Dodd has been relegated to the sideline, into relative obscurity and his once disheartened son is glimpsed, dressed beautifully and directing the directions of the cause. In seconds, PTA represents the opportunistic leader of Scientology, David Miscavige, with a poetic subtlety. Firstly baffled that the belief structure was nonsensical, and secondly that it didn't matter. His exploits, his filibuster speeches, the tasteless opulence in his methods; it has to be seen to be believed.
Once you see the depths that this organisation will go to galvanise itself from criticism, you marvel at the fact that this documentary made it to its release without being swallowed into a legal quagmire of libel and here-say by an institution that the documentary uncovers sued the IRS (U.S.A's Internal Revenue Service) into accepting their legitimacy. Gibney masterfully dances through the minefield of the history of Scientology knowing that this cult's litigious force has already been used to bribe the IRS into qualifying its legitimacy. If you're inspired to research a little further in the wake of the film, you'll find significant characters that aren't mentioned because they've had to ensure that their facts could withstand the test of corroboration and eyewitness testimony.
The only minor ill feeling I had viewing Going Clear was the chapter scrutinising 'poster boy' Tom Cruise. This exposé chapter of the film, especially into the alleged crazy tactics that have been employed to develop the perfect spouse for the actor, felt like the most unreliable (and sometimes nasty) moments of the otherwise sound journalistic torpedo.
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is yet another entry into Alex Gibney's incredible resume of consistently objective and powerful documentary films.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Alex Gibney Written by: Alex Gibney (based on the book by Lawrence Wright) Featuring interviews with: Lawrence Wright, Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun, Paul Haggis, Jason Beghe, Tom De Vocht, Hana Eltringham, Tony Ortega, Sylvia 'Spanky' Taylor, Monique Rathbun