Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief March 29, 8 p.m., HBO.
Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney has made feature films about subjects ranging from Enron to Lance Armstrong to Fela Kuti, and with Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, he takes on another subject that has been extensively covered and analyzed already. At his best, Gibney is good at distilling complex issues into accessible, entertaining films, and he mostly accomplishes that with this adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s popular book about the controversial Church of Scientology. Anyone who’s been paying attention to Scientology over the past several years, whether by reading Wright’s book or following the work of journalists like Tony Ortega, probably won’t learn anything new from watching Going Clear. But as an overview of the history and the main criticisms of Scientology, Going Clear is effective, especially when Gibney spends time on the more personal stories of his various interview subjects.
Those subjects generally fall into two categories: reporters like Wright and Ortega, and former Scientologists like filmmaker Paul Haggis and actor Jason Beghe. While those two bring some show-business name recognition to the film, it’s the less-recognizable figures who provide the most compelling testimony. Gibney talks to a number of former high-ranking Scientology figures, some of whom were in the church for decades, and their accounts of abuse and manipulation are powerful indictments of both founder L. Ron Hubbard (who died in 1986) and current church leader David Miscavige. The first half of the movie, which details church history and Hubbard’s rise to prominence, can be a little dry, but as Gibney allows each interview subject to talk about the specific instances that led to their departure from the church, he frames the story in more emotionally powerful terms.
There’s little deviation from the familiar structure of talking-head interviews and archival footage, but everyone that Gibney talks to has something worthwhile to say, and they accumulate a damning case against Scientology without coming off as bitter or vindictive. That case may not necessarily be new or groundbreaking, but it is worth presenting, and Going Clear gets it out there in a direct, engaging way that will leave viewers eager to learn more.