McDowdy’s Documentary Digest: Going Clear


Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Director: Alex Gibney

by Derek McDow May 1, 2015

If you had a vague but unverified sense that Scientology was a bit odd, unhinged, or unearthly; just wait till you hear about “Operating Thetans” (OTs), the intergalactic dictator Xenu and how the Earth is a slave planet for humans who were brought here billions of years ago while cryogenically frozen, dropped into volcanoes, and blown up with hydrogen bombs. And don’t even ask about O-T-T-R-Zero & “exteriorization” during auditing! I might be getting some of my theology wrong here but then again, that’s why you’ll want to see Alex Gibney’s newest documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

Based off Pulitzer Prize winning author Lawrence Wright’s newest non-fiction, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief, Gibney’s adaptation seems determined to include as much of the book’s content as possible, which, makes for a superbly in-depth, re-watchable experience (not unlike his other first-rate documentaries: Enron, Mea Maxima Culpa, Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9, & We Steal Secrets). That’s probably why Rolling Stone and Huffington Post made listicles of prominent observations contained in the film instead of trying to summarize it outright. Fortunately, there’s still quite a bit of information that Gibney leaves out of his documentary and viewers seeking more in-depth information on Scientology won’t be disappointed by picking up Wright’s book.

The titular phrase “Going Clear” stems from Scientology argot, which expresses a state one might attain after purging the psyche of “engrams” or deep-rooted traumatic memories from previous lives. This purification process often takes the form of “auditing” sessions, which resemble Catholic confessions or pseudo-psychiatric sessions with fellow members who keep detailed records of intimate disclosures & indiscretions. Clever enough, Gibney framed most of the interviews in the film as if each one were a private auditing session. If any of this sounds cultishly eerie, that’s because it is and the subtitle doesn’t flinch to point out the obvious: this is “the prison of belief”.

Really, though, Going Clear is a provocative xposé—one that has already garnered wide-spread national media coverage (People, The New York Times, ABC News, The Guardian, IndieWire, Variety, Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, A.V. Club, etc.). In part, no doubt because, there’s a smidgen of salacious celebrity scandal in the mix. Tom Cruise is seen saluting LRH and promoting the Scientology brand while we’re lead to believe the breakup of Nicole Kidman and Cruise might’ve been, in part, instigated by prominent members of Scientology. Additionally, it seems John Travolta might be the victim of blackmail by the church since they have decades worth of extensive auditing records on him, and Paul Haggis, writer/director of Crash speaks extensively about his 35 year-long investment and “escape” from the church.

In addition to the Hollywood celebrities, Gibney musters a cadre of high-profile ex-Scientology members to speak directly about their comprehensive backgrounds in the church. One of the more disturbing accounts comes from Sarah Northrup, LRH’s second wife who testifies of LRH’s inveterate manipulation, abuse, kidnapping, and fraud. This testimony is further compounded by the other first-hand accounts of members who worked with LRH and his militant successor David Miscavige.

Going Clear is at once comedic—with references to Scientologists possessing super powers, e-meters that can weigh the mass of thoughts, L. Ron Hubbard’s early career as a pulp-sci-fi writer and connection with occultist Aleister Crowley to produce the literal anti-christ—and simultaneously disturbing—allegations of physical abuse, child neglect, blackmail, unlawful surveillance, litigious harassment, and various other cases of criminal activity. In fact, due to Scientology members stealing government documents in the 70s, the FBI conducted its largest raid (at the time) on the church. The scandal, intrigue, abuse, & corruption should compel viewers to ask, “How is this not a movie?” And they’d do well to recall, watch, or rewatch Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant quasi-biopic of LRH, The Master. At a cursory glance, likening Going Clear to The Battle for Citizen Kane doesn’t seem too far-fetched, at least not compared to LRH’s creation myth of Xenu whose overpopulated home-plant, 75 million years ago, resembled 1950s America! In this case, L. Ron Hubbard might appear akin to William Randolph Hearst.

While several comedians rushed to mock Scientology including David Letterman, Seth Meyers, and a few others, SNL’s spoof of the classic Scientology choir song “We Stand Tall” is undoubtedly the best—next of course to the now classic South Park episode “Trapped in the Closet”. In the SNL musical skit, Scientology becomes “Neurotology” and Dianetics—L. Ron Hubbard’s quintessential book—becomes “Diametrics”. The Underground Bunker provides a worthy breakdown of the SNL spoof and all its eastereggs—many of which are referenced in Going Clear. In this case, the more you know, the darker the humor seems, especially while juxtaposed with the golden-bathed upbeat choir—many of which are referenced in Going Clear.

And while it would’ve given the film a wholly judicious air to see more counterpoint from people within the church of Scientology or even some of the big players in the film—Miscavige, Cruise, Travolta, or even one of their spokes-people, representatives, or lawyers—Going Clear still manages to come across as considerate without being delicate toward the Church. It seems reasonable that many of the showcased characters would refuse to comment for a film they can’t ultimately control the bias and outcome of. Undoubtedly, however, none of that will make much difference to the Scientologists who by now consider Gibney “Fair Game” in their parlance and, ironically, any legal bullying to result from their retaliation will further solidify the assertions made about Scientology in Going Clear. If ever there was a time to take a passing interest in something like Scientology that might’ve seemed shrouded in mystery, now’s the time to do it. Now’s the time to “Go Clear”.

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About the Author: Like the young boys in Hugo, Cinema Paradiso, and Last Action Hero, Derek McDow found magic in movies and theaters at a young age. Similarly, like the protagonists in Barton Fink, Adaptation, and 8 1/2, he finds self-referential narratives of scriptwriters and directors fascinating. And if he’s being honest, Meta-films like All that Jazz, Birdman, and Synecdoche, New York will always bring out the cinephile fandom in him. Derek is also fascinated with the industry’s inside winks and nods, homages in movies about Hollywood--Sunset Blvd, All About Eve, and The Producers, to name a few. Instead of name-dropping and flouting credentials, Derek would like to articulate his passion for film in a series of "Documentary Digests" that he hopes you’ll read, enjoy, and commentate on. Visit him here at

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