A lazy, sensationalistic piece of cinematic journalism based on a masterpiece of narrative reportage, Alex Gibney’s Going Clear takes the revelations of Lawrence Wright’s work exposing the inner workings of the Church of Scientology and twists them into two hours of talking-head interviews, reenactments, and pointless scaremongering. The prolific director reliably releases two or three features a year on infamous celebrities or provocative subjects, and his approach is fluid, sweeping, and at this point dispiritingly formulaic. Gibney’s ambition is to create the definitive documentary on each of his subjects; as such, his films refuse to dwell on the ambiguities or hypocrisies that might make them more worthwhile than a half hour on YouTube and Wikipedia.
Wright’s presence in Going Clear is a persistent reminder of what the film could have been. Early on, he declares an interest in systems of belief with a “crushing certainty that erases doubt,” but the film’s synopsis of Scientology is delivered with a sneer. The religion’s duped apostates speak of signing billion-year contracts, spending vast sums of money on elevating the church’s baroque hierarchy of spiritual achievement, and being treated cruelly as lesser acolytes (John Travolta, Tom Cruise) are festooned with honors intended to keep them espousing the religion’s benefits. Wright explains how L. Ron Hubbard transformed his work in science fiction into a formal set of beliefs, and the film quickly reminds us that Hubbard was “prone to invention,” dredging up inflated war stories and some heinous treatment of his lovers and children.