Review: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015 documentary)

Oscar and Emmy winner Alex Gibney, whose previous documentaries have examined the coverup of child abuse in the Catholic Church and corruption in business and government, takes up Scientology, including its history and its best-known adherents such as Tom Cruise.

It’s based on Pulitzer-Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s similarly titled 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. The film can’t possibly cover as much ground as the book, but it shows things a book cannot, such as rare footage of an interview with Scientology founder L Run Hubbard himself, and it covers a few developments since the book’s publication.

Besides historic footage, Going Clear features recent interviews with former Scientology members and top officials who describe what they say they did and what they say was done to them. It also incorporates a lot of television network news footage despite the networks’ having denied permission. The producers apparently relied on the copyright law doctrine of “Fair Use,” which can be a bit of a risky gray area. I suspect, however—and most likely the producers did as well—that the networks were motivated mainly by a desire to avoid being sued but were otherwise quite happy to see the material used. (HBO, which helped produce the film, reportedly had 160 lawyers involved in the project.)

Scientology has denounced both the book and the film and described several of the former Scientologists interviewed as liars and scoundrels. Some of the people in question have allegedly been subjected to campaigns of harassment (as shown in the film, in fact). Threatened legal action for a while convinced publishers and networks in the UK to delay release of both the book and the documentary (though the film has since been broadcast there).

To a fair extent, though, it appears that Scientology’s campaign has backfired, especially in the U.S. For example, their full-page ads attacking the film in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times served to spread word of its theatrical release. The ads placed to promote the film were relatively tiny.

After being broadcast on HBO Going Clear received seven Emmy nominations and won in three categories, for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming, and Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes classified 93% of 74 published reviews as favorable, and 21 reviewers the site considers “top critics” were unanimous in recommending it.


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