There’s a moment in Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Disbelief when Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigate journalist who authored Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Disbelief, explains, “My goal wasn’t to write an exposé. It was simply to understand Scientology, to understand what people get out of it, you know, why do they go into it in the first place.” That’s pretty much the difference between Gibney and Wright, between this new HBO documentary and Wright’s masterfully calibrated, sensitive and expansive 2013 book: Gibney’s in it for the exposé. His approach is far more blunt than Wright’s. Which, it turns out, is just fine, because the documentary, though its title is inexplicably foreshortened, forms a welcome audio-visual aid to the book, and because, frankly, there is sooooo much to expose.
Where to begin? I’d suggest you begin with the book, of course, which wasn’t released in Canada (I ordered mine from the US), but perhaps the reverse will work just as well: think of the doc as a teaser. The basic trajectory of doc and book are in any case the same, using the highly publicized 2011 resignation of Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis from the Church of Scientology as a framing device, tracing the batshit crazy life of galactically prolific science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and examining the transformation Scientology undertook when Hubbard died and an equally crazy if less creepily charismatic man named David Miscavige took the celestial reigns and conquered the Internal Revenue Service, who has been demanding millions from Scientology and finally had to cry uncle when Scientology finally managed to get classified as a religion, thus apprehending their financial holy grail: tax exemption! Along the way we hear testimonies from various former Scientologists, such as actor Jason Beghe, John Travolta’s liaison Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor, and Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, who both worked their way to Scientology’s upper echelons. They confirm every litigious thing you’ve ever heard about Scientology, the kidnapping and child labour, the coercion and torture, the billion-year contracts and other elements of the Church’s risible mythos. Along the way we also, through archival footage, meet a gentleman by the name of Tom Cruise, the all-powerful evil robot with the eerily strained laughter, who, after shedding his infidel spouse Nicole Kidman, became Scientology’s favourite son and reaped all the benefits.
Gibney makes several problematic choices in how he assembles the material, a fairly obvious example is the way he’ll make a hard cut from Miscavige giving a dumb-sounding speech at some expensively tacky Scientology event to an audience bursting into applause, creating a relationship between what’s said and its response that may not represent what really happened. Gibney focuses almost exclusively on the most sensationalistic incidents reported in Wright’s book—though there are so many jaw-dropping stories to choose from that those hungry for dirt will still find their appetites sated should they read it. You won’t leave Going Clear feeling any lack of outrage, but you may, alas, feel slighted with regards to fascination. Gibney shows less interest in the allure of Scientology holds for so many perfectly intelligent, credible, ambitious people, something Wright illuminated beautifully and respectfully. In short: see Going Clear, but also read Going Clear. There’s a far more complex—if no less damning—story to be found here.