Review: Scientology Documentary 'Going Clear' Exposes The Horrors Of The Religion

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The Church of Scientology's Pacific Area Command Center in Hollywood. (Courtesy of HBO)

The Church of Scientology has always held a fascination with the American public—no doubt because of its foothold in celebrity culture, but also for its behind-the-scenes grotesqueries and bizarre origin stories (both its own historical roots and its scriptures creation myth). Even before Tom Cruise's highly public Born Again Scientologist phase, many of the revelations chronicled in Lawrence Wright's exposé Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief were already public knowledge in some manner. Lest we forget Richard Behar's pre-Internet Time magazine cover story "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power" from 1991. With the release of Alex Gibney's documentary adaptation of Wright's book (which will air on HBO later this month), it might leave one to wonder if there are any new revelations to be gained from a documentary on such a dense book and subject.

Gibney's approach with Going Clear is straightforward and sometimes formally bland. It's a mostly linear presentation of Scientology's history and practices coupled with talking-head interviews with Wright and notable Church defectors, including filmmaker Paul Haggis. Haggis' defection in 2009 was the inspiration for a New Yorker profile by Wright that became the basis for the book. Although the interviews serve as the backbone for the film, Gibney's questioning rarely illuminates. Participants also include former top brass from within the Church, such as Mark Rathbun and Mike Rinder, whose personal experiences could offer insight on the trappings of faith and the psychology of cult devotees, but Gibney doesn't seem interested. Going Clear is more a cataloging of the horrific abuses at Gold Base and the absurdity of founder L. Ron Hubbard's teachings. It makes for a good show.

Condensing a 450-page book into a 2-hour documentary is no easy task, and one could argue that the film lets the material speak for itself. But what role does Gibney's Going Clear serve other than compiling known material and broadcasting it from a larger and louder pulpit? Some of Going Clear truly is compelling, especially the Leni Riefenstahl-like video productions from the church. But once you go through enough anecdotes about the abuses of Scientology's leadership, sometimes misfiring and dramatizing moments into the realm of pure sensationalism (see: the musical chairs sequence involving Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"), the shock value wears off. All that's left is a half-hearted inquiry that doesn't really dig up any more dirt.

The Church of Scientology is infamous for bullying and suing its critics into submission, operating under Hubbard's credo of, "Never defend, always attack." It's too bad Going Clear decided to play the same game.

Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief is now playing in Los Angeles (Arclight Hollywood), New York (Lincoln Center), and San Francisco (Presidio Theater). It will air on HBO beginning March 29.

Related:
The Challenges Of Making A Scientology Documentary, According To 'Going Clear' Director