Going Clear

500 Days Of Film Reviews Going Clear And Finds A Disturbing Look At Scientology

Going Clear is a documentary that seeks not to ridicule or expose Scientology but, instead, tries to understand why people (often quite literally) buy into this new religion and what they get from becoming a member of this Church.

The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright.

It examines the life of Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, focuses on how Scientology has grown in popularity and looks at the methods by which the organisation attracts and retains its members.

At its heart, Going Clear is a story about the experiences of former Scientology members - many of whom held senior positions in the church.

They tell a tale of systemic abuse and shocking betrayals by church officials.    

Is It Any Good?

Before watching Going Clear, I had a pretty hazy understanding of Scientology. 

Having read a few articles about the church, I had the vague notion that it was all based on a science fiction sounding idea conceived by an American man with a strange sounding name. 

I had also, of course, heard about Scientology’s Hollywood connections. I knew, for example, that John Travolta and Tom Cruise were members.

Now I don’t like to judge what other people believe in - if it works for them and doesn’t hurt anyone, well where’s the harm?

However, I wasn't long watching Going Clear before I began to suspect that there is harm here - great harm.

Director, Alex Gibney (who also directed Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), starts his film by looking at the creator of Scientology: L. Ron Hubbard.

I was interested, although not entirely surprised, to learn that Hubbard had been a prolific writer of science fiction in the days before he developed his religion. 

The film portrays Hubbard as a fantasist - a paranoid, jealous and violent man who initially created Scientology as a means of making money and avoiding taxes.

(Having developed his religion, based on his background in science fiction, Hubbard did eventually become a believer in Scientology.) 

We then learn about Scientology’s basis - about its creation myth. And, to be honest, it sounded pretty ridiculous to me. Who would really believe in all of this I thought. 

And here lies Gibney’s key interest. He also wanted to understand what people get out of Scientology. While making his film, he interviewed many former members of the church and encouraged them to explain their attraction to Scientology. We hear from eight of these interviewees in Going Clear.

At first, it seems, they just wanted to live a better, happier and more fulfilling life. Many claim that they didn’t know exactly what Scientology was based on (the science fiction bit) until much later - too much later perhaps. 

Today, the church’s website, offers online visitors a wealth of information. Scientology is described as a religion that offers a “precise path leading to complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self, family, groups, Mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Supreme Being”.

The website further explains that it is not “a dogmatic religion in which one is asked to accept anything on faith alone. On the contrary, one discovers for oneself that the principles of Scientology are true by applying its principles and observing or experiencing the results.”

Despite this initial impression of openness, the church still doesn’t appear (although I admit I didn’t spend a huge amount of time digging) to want to broadcast its science fiction roots.

Scientology feels, at first glance to be more about mindfulness - offering interested visitors the opportunity to “get to know the Real you”. 

I can see how such ideas could prove tempting.

Auditing And Going Clear

In order to achieve your full spiritual potential via Scientology, you need to take part in what the church calls 'auditing'. This is the precise route by which individuals may travel to higher states of spiritual awareness.

Auditing involves an auditor asking a person a series of questions to ‘help’ them locate “areas of spiritual distress”. The idea is that by talking about these areas of distress, a person can confront them and then move beyond them. 

The goal is to become clear - a state, according to the church’s website, that “describes a being who no longer has his own reactive mind, the hidden source of irrational behavior, unreasonable fears, upsets and insecurities. Without a reactive mind, individuals regain their basic personality, self-determinism and, in essence, become much, much more themselves.”


However, Going Clear presents a disturbingly dark side to auditing and the pursuit of Clear.

Gibney’s subjects explain that extensive notes are often taken during the auditing process - notes that have been used in the past to coerce members to remain within the church and do certain things for their religion. 

And so the documentary moves from describing the frankly silly basis of Scientology to revealing a far scarier side to this religion. 

For example, Scientology is officially recognised as a religion in the US thanks to the country's US Inland Revenue Service. In 1967, the church lost its tax-exempt status - a loss that looked likely to force the organisation into bankruptcy.

As a result, the church mounted a staggeringly aggressive campaign against the IRS. In 1993, these (sometimes illegal) activities forced the IRS to award Scientology its tax-exempt religious status once again.

It is all pretty unsettling.

Can We Trust This Documentary?

Can we believe this film? Can we trust what Gibney is telling us?

Scientology has always been pretty aggressive in defending itself. Indeed, at the beginning of the documentary, there is a message stating that the church disputes all of the views of the people in the film - claiming that they are all discredited ex-Scientologists with an axe to grind.

I took this into account as I started to watch. After all, if you look hard enough you can always find someone with an axe to grind.

However, I did not believe it by the end. There are just too many similar accounts and I am also aware that the book the film is based on has hundreds more. 

In addition, most of the sources that Gibney includes occupied senior positions within Scientology. They knew exactly what was going on and how church members were being treated.

I did not feel that these people stood to gain anything from lying about Scientology. Quite the opposite - most felt at best embarrassed, at worst ashamed of how they had behaved while a part of the church. What they have to say makes for some pretty uncomfortable viewing. 

A Cautionary Tale

In an HBO interview, Gibney explains that he wanted to show what smart people can get out of Scientology. He states that “the goal in the film is not to delegitimise anybody’s belief, it’s to question the way an outfit like Scientology can take the belief of good-hearted people and turn it in a very sinister direction.

“The film is really about a psychological process that to some extent, all of us undergo when we fall under a powerful political philosophy or a religion that allows us to be blinded to abuses committed in the names of those things. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us in that sense.”

Random Observations

Have you watched Going Clear? If so, what did you think about this documentary?


I’d love to know - why not leave me a comment in the box below?

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones

E: jane@500daysoffilm.com


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