Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sundance ’15: Going Clear

It is a documentary, but it could have played in the Park City at Midnight section, because it is a little scary at times. Alex Gibney’s Scientology documentary is pretty much everything you think it is, except it maintains a considerably higher standard of proof than his silly Eliot Spitzer conspiracy theory film. In fact, a considerable number of former high-ranking Scientologists go on-the-record and on-camera to explain how the IRS-designated church stifles dissent in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Fortunately, Gibney had producer and lead talking head Lawrence Wright’s nearly identically titled book to serve as a blueprint. Although Wright claims he never intended to write an expose that is essentially what he ended up with once he started digging. Gibney and Wright chronicle the Scientology creation story, going back to L. Ron Hubbard’s early years as an incompetent military officer and prolific science fiction writer, shining a light on his increasingly abusive relationship with second wife Sara Northrup Hollister. However, the biggest news in Clear may very well be the extent to which Oscar winning filmmaker Paul Haggis assumes the role of the leading public critic of his former “religion.”

Those who have read Wright’s book (or the excerpts that were released at the time of publication) will be generally familiar with the “alleged” harassment tactics unleashed against critics, but the totality of Gibney’s presentation is quite damning. Wright scores one of the film’s best lines marveling at the chutzpah it takes to launch a “war” against the IRS. Of course, the war is now over. Scientology won, gaining official tax-exemption and wriggling off the hook for a potential billion (with a “b”) dollar tax bill.

It is important to emphasize every allegation in Clear comes from a former member, speaking of what they witnessed firsthand and directly participated in. Yes, they could all be lying, but their consistency and Occam’s Razor finds that unlikely. In contrast, no loyalists agreed to participate in the film, most notably including the best known celebrity adherents. Frankly, it will probably be Tom Cruise’s reputation that takes the biggest hit from the film, but Gibney and his assorted experts leave open the possibility that John Travolta might be something of a victim of various controlling tactics himself.

It is extremely disturbing to see anti-Semitic rhetoric about Jews controlling Hollywood seep into the mainstream media, while the Scientology organization’s deliberate strategy to target the entertainment industry has been largely ignored. Surely, there are many well-meaning Scientologists (although the film estimates the ranks of active members have fallen to approximately 50,000), but they are not served by the leadership’s best-defense-is-a-good-offense policy. Gibney’s bracing documentary should be a wake-up call for them. Going Clear might be “controversial” (with air quotes), but it is authoritative and fully sourced. Highly recommended, it screens again this Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Sunday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.