Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

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Scientology has long been the whipping boy of the mainline religious establishment and certain sectors of show business.  But for all the jokes and accusations hurled at Scientology, it persists as a financial and cultural powerhouse.  Two-time Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney looks into the history of Scientology, the life of L. Ron Hubbard, and the lingering effects its establishment and practices leave on those who have "gone clear".

Where the magic happensAlex Gibney makes films with the kind of ferocious intensity I wish I could debate with.  Every time I've watched one of his projects, from 2005's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to 2013's We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, I'm struck by the clarity of his vision and wonder just how angry he is gathering footage.  There's a certain tension to a Gibney film which threatens to blow up in rabid accusation but he tempers into focused examinations of his subject.  No matter how the subject may make him feel, he presents information in a way that must convince an audience who may be unfamiliar or hostile to his viewpoint.

To that end, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief provides an expected target in a slightly unexpected light.  The expectation is Gibney is going to rip into the church which exploits the gullible rich with the same focus he did to the Enron bastards who killed people in their quest to make as much money as possible.  The twist is how Gibney zeroes in on Scientology through the eyes of its former practitioners, which gives the unfolding expose an odd sense of compassion toward the subject.

Gibney's visual approach has always been a bit dry, but he has some fun mixing in dystopian science fiction visuals in with the way the oppressive church of Scientology.

Gibney's visual approach has always been a bit dry, but he has some fun mixing in dystopian science fiction visuals in with the way the oppressive church of Scientology.

While I can't say I'm completely in favor of the tone Going Clear ends up striking, it does broaden the subject considerably.  Instead of being only a treatise on the effect Scientology has had on the world it becomes a road map for how people fall in, out, and sometimes back to the arms of religion.  It also depicts a depressing parallel to the way wealth and power has become concentrated in America, where the 1% may shrink in size but because of our economic structure they can still accumulate greater wealth.

The faith-based perspective, with the comforts and the pitfalls, is what guides the emotional pendulum of Going Clear.  It's easy to divide it into different emotional categories with the opening salvo a sometimes blissful embrace of faith, followed by a confounding existential crisis, and the painful reconciliation of those beliefs with the reality of what they do to their practitioners.  Gibney's mosaic of religious sympathy which opened Going Clear almost had me convinced each one of the people coming forward with their experience in Scientology, including Hollywood types such as Paul Haggis and Sylvia Taylor, was still a practitioner.  Haggis, in particular, comes across as being the most enraptured with his background in Scientology, telling with the clarity of an innocent youngster the way Scientology promised to solve all his problems.

Gibney's structure allows the audience to make some connections with these people through their faith.  Even for the non-religious or outright atheistic in the audience there is enough yearning in the stories of acceptance each participant shares.  When the gritty details regarding Scientology become interspersed in with the lighter stories of the former practitioners its almost insidious, planting a suggestion of malfeasance here and tales of growing physical abuse there.  But Gibney keeps the foundation intact until a mid-film twist shows each practitioner reacts to the, frankly, insane beliefs of its founder.  We watch as everyone's carefully constructed paradise  is blown to hell in a whirlwind of painful self-reflection.

The style follows suit, leading the once carefully assembled testimonies against the history of L. Ron Hubbard descend into a nightmare of overlapping voices and representations of the volcanic hell that birthed modern souls.  If I had my druthers, I'd solely keep to the testimonies of those who weathered their escape from Scientology because the clarity of presentation to unfocused nightmare of which serves as the turning point of Going Clear is also what signals its transformation into a more conventional Gibney film.  He still works with amazing craft, but the deluge of information and backdoor shenanigans which followed was the subject I expected all along.  The personal touch is what really affected me throughout Going Clear.

The sheer economic scope of Scientology is neatly laid out in verbal arguments within the film and duplications of pay structures for each level of Scientology.

The sheer economic scope of Scientology is neatly laid out in verbal arguments within the film and duplications of pay structures for each level.

Still, there's enough behind-the-scenes meat in the remaining act of Going Clear to satisfy those who want a vicious screed against Scientology and Gibney more than satisfies in this regard.  He's so thorough in his investigation of Scientology as an outright scam that Going Clear serves as a case study in why religious tax exemptions are horrific abuses of money and trust in the wrong hands.  Gibney blends this viewpoint in with examples from the media presence of Scientology, complete with what is essentially "We are the World" for Scientologists, to drive home the opulent spending required to potentially hold the same two cans of electricity as Tom Cruise.

If I'm disappointed at all in Going Clear, it's because I was treated to the Gibney's unique vision in a different light and wanted to see the entire film from that more personal approach.  His message regarding the systemic issues with giving dubious organizations tax breaks notwithstanding, Going Clear just felt too familiar.  The clarity of his vision is still present throughout the most damning sections and especially when the collected wealth of the dwindling practitioners is calculated for our disgust.  But I was still wondering about the recovery of Sylvia Taylor's child, eyes swollen and blanket soaked in urine, who was at the mercy of the supremely deluded.

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Tail - Going ClearGoing Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

Directed by Alex Gibney.

Posted by Andrew

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