Movie Review: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Alex Gibney’s latest film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, feels more like a horror film than a documentary. Scientology survivors’ accounts of their time in the cult (I refuse to call it a church) are almost beyond belief. While it lacks elements that could have made it a great doc, it’s still a must-see film that exposes one of the more bizarre and surprisingly successful (?) cults of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

To get a clearer understanding of the tenets of Scientology, you would do well to watch Season 9, Episode 12 of South Park, “Trapped in the Closet.” Gibney forgoes a detailed account of these beliefs in exchange for first-hand accounts of the political machinations in the cult, the tactics uses to recruit, train, imprison, and intimidate current and former Scientologists. Gibney’s film is based on Lawrence Wright‘s critically-acclaimed book of the same name, with one exception. Wright titles his book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Although Gibney’s film leaves Hollywood out of its title, Tinseltown’s ties to the infamous cult are on full display, particularly through devotees John Travolta and Tom Cruise. One wonders how the latter’s career can survive after the accounts of his marriage to Nicole Kidman, his Scientology-manufactured girlfriend, and, of course, rumors about Katie Holmes. Former Scientologist and director Paul Haggis is painfully honest about his experiences in the cult and the shame and regret that the carries with him. While there is much to condemn about Scientology, Haggis’ experiences with the cult is, perhaps, an avenue into the larger question of belief.

But Gibney’s film is more about the prison than the belief as we only get surface explanations of why these people join(ed) the cult. What were their lives like before? Did they have prior religious experiences? Were there tragedies that motivated their spiritual quests? Haggis’ (and others’) guilt and shame over previous beliefs, attitudes, and practices, if we’re honest, are most likely familiar to many of us who have grown up in and remain in any religion or denomination–unless you’ve blissfully moved through life with an unexamined faith.

The amount of behind-the-curtain footage of Scientology gatherings is as shocking as Cruise’s devotion is absurd. The doc benefits from some sharp editing and a haunting score. What’s most disturbing is Scientology’s dwindling numbers but growing financial worth (helped along by shrewd investments and slave labor), all protected under a tax-exempt religious status. Who knows when that long process of reversing that regrettable IRS decision will begin, but after watching Going Clear, you know it has to. You also know that you’ll never watch another Tom Cruise film again.