Scientology is too big for one documentary. For 60 years, this Church and its various subordinate organizations have been at the center of scores of controversies, many of which are hot topics even now. Any film that tries to fit the full scale of its history into a two-hour run time is going to fail to do it justice. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief tries to do this. It fails.
The doc, directed by Alex Gibney, is built mainly on interviews with eight ex-Scientologists, including director Paul Haggis and several of the Church’s former executives. They all testify to the organization holding a ruthless grip over their lives, sometimes alleging brainwashing, and how their defections meant leaving behind friends and family members. But these people are not the story. Scientology itself is the main character.
That makes the film a relentless, breathless piece of work. It speeds through founder L. Ron Hubbard’s youth, the Church’s founding, its early history, its development over time, its practices, its relationship to celebrities and its modern-day events. The interviewees are spilling intensely personal experiences to the camera, often recounting abuse at the hands of the Church, but the film is only interested in them insofar as they can contribute to the overall portrait its creating. It’s an impressive feat of editing, at least. There’s a ton of information squelched into a television-broadcast-friendly block of time. Anyone not familiar with the Church will likely be blown away. And indeed, a side effect of the hurried pace is that even I found myself riveted, despite my already knowing most of what the film has to offer.
But in the aftermath, much of Going Clear withers away. This is the apotheosis of the documentary as a moving-picture Wikipedia article on its subject. Or more accurately, as a Wikipedia article on a book, Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Fans of nonfiction storytelling need to be demanding more of the form than stylish summaries of preexisting material. The best parts of Going Clear actually reinforce this point; footage from Scientology rallies, with Church leader David Miscavige speechifying amongst Nazi-esque sturm and drang, convey the eerie might of this organization better than redundant testimony.
Take any individual scene or sequence from Going Clear and it appears to be tremendous work. Scientology is rich material, and the production is top-notch. Gibney is the closest thing to a blockbuster director that the current doc scene has, and he knows how to weave together interview, graphics, reenactments and preexisting footage for maximum effect. Sometimes its even artful. Ex-Scientologists are introduced via titles that bear imitations of “E-meters” (devices Scientologists use to “audit” their spiritual health) over their names, and when those characters speak of leaving the Church, the E-meter graphics fade away, visually conveying the sense of release each of them felt.
But the whole is less than the sum, because no single part can get the attention it deserves. It’s easy to imagine that a film focused only on the recollections of the former Scientologists would be so much better. Or one that is just about Hubbard. Or about Operation Snow White, the largest infiltration of the American government ever, which gets something like five minutes devotion here. Or about how the Church “maintains control” of Tom Cruise and John Travolta, both of whom get considerably more attention than Operation Snow White. So on and so forth. If a film must cover all of Scientology, it either should be five hours long or a miniseries.
This review was originally published on March 16, 2015.