It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Alex Gibney is a filmmaker who takes well-reported, highly-documented stories and pulls them apart, examining them piece by piece to find a further truth within them. With “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” he didn’t so much expose the criminal business practices of one of the biggest companies in the world as much as he examined how they became normalized and the fall-out that forever changed business. With “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” he doesn’t so much offer new facts about pedophilia but try and illuminate how this dark corner of human existence persisted. He is a documentarian more interested in the environment that creates his subjects than the behavior of the subjects specifically. And so his controversial “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” is in some senses a perfect fit for filmmaker and subject. Where has this controversial religion come from? How did it attain such popularity? And why is it such a part of the fabric of Hollywood, attracting major names like John Travolta and Tom Cruise? That Gibney doesn’t quite get all the answers to these questions isn’t as material as it might be for other films. He’s tackling them as no one else could.
In his fashion, Gibney examines Scientology from an organizational perspective—its history, its spokespeople, its allure—and yet he makes it clear from the very beginning that this will also be a confessional piece, opening the film with voices and soundbites of those who know about Scientology from the inside. The credits of the film mimic an important part of the Scientology experience: auditing, in which members of the church discuss painful memories and deep-seated secrets in order to expel them from their being. The idea is one common in therapy: only through examination can we discard that which is weighing us down. Consider “Going Clear” an audit for the former leaders and most prominent members of the Church of Scientology, now willing to come forward and allege abuse, intimidation, and brainwashing.
At first glance, Scientology is inherently appealing. Celebrities like John Travolta have espoused how its very purpose is to "further joy." It promises a journey of self-discovery in which you will not only shed the mental and emotional weights that keep you down but become smarter, stronger, and better as a human being. Who doesn’t want that? Who has never been attracted to something that promised personal improvement? Paul Haggis was at a certain down point in his life and the Oscar-winning filmmaker is one of Gibney’s most engaging subjects, detailing not just why he left Scientology but what attracted him to it in the first place.
In 1952, L. Ron Hubbard, a prolific sci-fi writer, took several of the concepts with which he was playing in his genre fiction and created a religion. Gibney’s film even goes as far as to assert, through the writings of Hubbard’s ex-wife, that the writer crafted the religion out of profitable motivations, noting that the tax-free status of the organization was the way to wealth. “Going Clear” paints a portrait of a deeply troubled man in LRH, someone who wrote asking for mental health and suffered severe paranoia. But he was also charismatic and smart enough to convey a vision of a better life to millions of people who turned “Dianetics,” the Bible of Scientology, into a worldwide phenomenon.