Sundance Review: Alex Gibney's <i>Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief</i>

Even if you've read Lawrence Wright's book,on which the film is based, Gibney's adaptation is an eye-opening and transformative experience.
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Opening Note: Bless HBO's Sheila Nevins for being the ballsiest woman in the business and green-lighting Alex Gibney's new documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

It's common knowledge that anyone who speaks out about (and particularly any journalist who writes about) The Church of Scientology is "fair game," meaning that person is inviting the full wrath and power of "The Church" into his or her life. Scientologist leaders do not play defense -- they attack. This is one of the many well-articulated and important points spelled out by Alex Gibney in his new HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief. (In light of this fact, I'd like to welcome The Church of Scientology to my blog. I hope you enjoy the read.) It is perhaps this feeling of danger, the recent lawsuits and Gibney's reputation as a daring and deft documentarian (Taxi To the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that made the Sundance premiere of Going Clear feel like the biggest event of this year's festival. Tickets were hard to come by, the screening started late and just before the lights dimmed Tobey Maguire was still roaming the aisles looking for a seat.

Even if you've read Lawrence Wright's book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief on which the film is based, Gibney's adaptation is an eye-opening and transformative experience. The difference between reading about Scientology's bizarre principles and seeing them up on-screen, spelled out in an easily digestible and visually exciting way is profound. The film is eerily entertaining and even funny at times, that is, until you catch yourself and remember how many lives have been ruined in the name of these far-fetched science fiction concepts.

My very first introduction to Scientology was in 1991. I was ten-years-old. My mother and father had lost a friend years earlier to The Church, and they had been sent a rare exposé on video. I must have watched that VHS tape fifteen times with its horrifying details of work camps in Florida and families being torn apart. One woman, I remember, had tried desperately to seek medical help, but the Church wouldn't allow it. By the time she was able to leave the Church's clutches, her cancer was too far advanced to treat. So which news organization had the remarkable integrity to stand up to the Church of Scientology when no one else would? Who gave these victims voices all the way back in 1991, years before there was public interest in the subject? If you guessed Sally Jesse Raphael, you are correct. Here's the transcript, and it still holds up remarkably well.

But back to Going Clear. All these years later, the Church of Scientology has (for the most part) managed to shield itself from outside scrutiny, hiding behind the cloak of religion and amassing a tax-free fortune with which to battle its detractors. Then last year, Lawrence Wright's widely reviewed book came along. Watching Gibney's documentary, whether in theaters or at home, makes one feel a part of something important. "Going Clear" is what I hope for in a documentary - it enlightens, it horrifies, it entertains and the people it exposes do not want it to exist.

Though Gibney's film is so faithful to Wright's book that one may claim it has few new revelations and details to add to the subject, I believe that the film will ultimately prove more damaging to The Church than its source material. Gibney's film's power lies in its simplicity. Perfectly-assembled and abundantly clear, Going Clear relies on only the very basic and provable truths, making this vital documentary feel impregnable and undeniable.

Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief premieres this March on HBO.

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