The Church of Scientology hates this film. When it was released in the US in March, the organisation sent a five-page letter to the Hollywood Reporter denouncing ‘bigoted propaganda’. It took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. And it opened a belligerent Twitter account, firing off ad hominem attacks at director Alex Gibney. All par for the course. As is laid bare in this affecting, gobsmacking film, which draws on Lawrence Wright’s acclaimed book of the same name, Scientology’s retaliations know few bounds. The courage of the apostates who agreed to blow the whistle on camera can hardly be overstated.
Lucid testimonies from former executives and adherents, among them screenwriter Paul Haggis (Crash, Casino Royale), stand in contrast to the glossy and sinister exhortations of David Miscavige, who rose to succeed the charismatic fantasist L. Ron Hubbard as high priest of the multibillion-dollar church. New footage of celebrity disciples John Travolta and Tom Cruise, who is shown preaching the legacy of LRH before thousands at a Scientology rally, is at once riveting and discomfiting.
Beyond the fascination and kookiness of the self-help parables, e-meters and alien emperor foundation myth, Going Clear paints a chilling picture – all of it denied by the Scientologists – of a ‘church’ that lavishes riches on its favourites and metes brutality upon dissenters and their families. It also confirms the status of Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mea Maxima Culpa, We Steal Secrets: The WikiLeaks Story) as America’s preeminent contemporary documentary filmmaker. — Toby Manhire