HBO has a long tradition of producing documentaries that don’t shy away from being controversial. The films work not as some provocative piece that uses lurid subject matter in order to attract viewers. Rather, they employ solid journalistic techniques and filmed interviews that had been compiled over the years in order to portray a darker side of truth.
The best example of this is the Paradise Lost trilogy. Much like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (only not as quick as that particular film), the three documentaries about the infamous “West Memphis Three” and the murders of small children eventually helped lead to the release of wrongly-convicted men who had their youth stolen from them in prison.
And so, Going Clear is an attempt to expose the truth of the Church of Scientology and does an incredible job at going into the various layers of corruption that are a part of its past and present. Much of the information presented is previously-known and can be found on one’s own time on the internet with a few hour’s worth of research, but Going Clear presents this information in such an easy-to-digest package, with captivating interviews and great pacing, it makes the documentary a must see for anyone curious about the subject of Scientology.
The film begins with a trio of interviews from former members of the church, telling their own personal story of their involvement. We meet Paul Haggis (director of films like Crash), Jason Beghe and Sylvia “Spanky” Taylor. From there, we travel backward in time to explore the life and career of L. Ron Hubbard, who is portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic light–he’s not made out to be a con man, as such, more as someone who conned a great many people in order to explore his own confused, and sometimes scary, mind.
Later, we get to hear from higher-ups in the Church of Scientology who decided to separate from the church (Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbun and Hana Eltringham are just a few), and they tell us in long, vivid detail their entire history with the faith and their inevitable decision to leave, and the harassment that would soon follow.
Tom Cruise and John Travolta are given their own chapters, chronicling their involvement. The film speculates that John Travolta may be blackmailed by the church given some rumors that have been circulating the public regarding his sexuality. The Church of Scientology keeps file after file of detailed reports on members they deem to be important–which is a fact–and Travolta appears (allegedly, according to the documentary) to be kept prisoner by whatever secret he wants to hide in order to the church’s bidding.
What seems to be central to Scientology’s existence is money, and they secure this money through various levels of membership and stages of enlightenment, for which they get thousands of dollars. They also seem to make a sizable profit from what appears to be child labor violations under the guise of religious volunteering.
The title “Going Clear” refers to one of the stages of salvation that a practicing Scientologist can hope to attain.
I expect that most common reaction to the film is going to be outrage. Outrage from both sides. Outrage from viewers wondering, “Why, why the hell can’t we do anything to stop these guys?!” and outrage from Scinetology sympathizers wondering, “Why, why does this church get so much flak, and why is it so socially acceptable?”
A good documentary presents facts and lets you soak them in and lingers with you for a long time after the movie ends. A great documentary makes you mad as hell that such an injustice in this world could exist and even the most powerful people can’t do anything to stop them. You want to pound your first on the desk and demand that something be done.
Going Clear is going to be talked about for a long, long time. Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright have created a great piece of journalism that I sincerely hope does some good and leaves a legacy of positive change in its wake.