The Sundance Film Festival announced today that it has selected Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s HBO-produced documentary about Scientology, Going Clear, for its 2015 lineup.
The two-hour movie, based on Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, will make its premiere at the festival, screening for the first time at 2:30 pm on Sunday, January 25 in Park City, Utah.
Your proprietor was interviewed for the film and has been invited to the premiere. We are looking forward to what we believe will be a devastating look at the effect Scientology has on its adherents. We can’t say much more about what’s in the movie. Gibney’s production company issued this terse synopsis of the film…
“Going Clear intimately profiles eight former members of the Church of Scientology, shining a light on how they attract true believers and the things they do in the name of religion.”
It’s not surprising that the crew is being tight-lipped. HBO is planning for a fierce onslaught from Scientology’s notoriously aggressive legal division. HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins told the Hollywood Reporter the network has 160 lawyers ready to deal with Scientology’s offensive.
Having worked with several documentary teams over the last few years, we have some notion of what HBO is in for. Scientology hasn’t actually sued a news or television organization since its $416 million suit against Time magazine over a 1991 cover story and then a 1995 lawsuit against the Washington Post (both were dismissed). Its method in more recent years is to fire menacing threat letters at a network in the months and weeks before a show airs, trying to find executives who will cave under the prospect of litigation.
If you’ve seen the colorful letters sent to Vanity Fair and CNN by Scientology attorney Jeffrey K. Riffer, you get some idea of the bluster in these letters. They complain that any coverage of the church is inherently bigoted, that sources in an article or program are liars or have outdated information, and they complain that the media won’t cover the real story, which is that Scientology is building new churches around the world. (Scientology leader David Miscavige is putting intense pressure on his shrinking flock to pay for new buildings, but these “Ideal Orgs” simply replace existing facilities and there’s no evidence they’re resulting in an upswing in membership.)
We asked former Scientology spokesman Mike Rinder how today’s news will be greeted at church headquarters.
“I think there’s going to be some soiled shorts. This is a very catastrophic and extremely significant event, because the legitimacy of Alex Gibney and HBO are undeniable. And it is a well known fact that Alex Gibney is not just a brilliant filmmaker but you can’t intimidate him.”
If the past is any guide, however, Scientology won’t bother with Gibney but will instead go after HBO executives, or perhaps festival organizers at Sundance.
“They’ll no doubt get letters. But they haven’t stopped anything. Every threat Scientology has made since the days of the BBC specials [John Sweeney’s “Scientology and Me” and “The Secrets of Scientology” in 2007 and 2010] have been empty,” Rinder says. In this case, he thinks it’s what is happening behind the scenes that will be really important.
“This is Scientology’s worst nightmare when it comes to media, and media is a big factor in the world of David Miscavige. His vanity is his greatest weakness. And particularly when he thinks it’s going to make him look bad in the eyes of Tom Cruise or other Hollywood people,” Rinder says.
We asked him if Miscavige will be tempted to enlist Cruise in trying to stop the film.
“Oh, I think he will definitely be tempted to get Tom Cruise involved. And [Cruise’s attorney] Bert Fields, not to write legal letters, but to reach out to friends in influential places. That’s what’s going on right now. They know that legal threat letters are a waste of time. They’ll do what they did in the case of South Park,” Rinder says, referring to a reportedly successful effort by Cruise in 2006 to convince Comedy Central not to rerun the notorious “Trapped in the Closet” episode by threatening the network’s owner, Viacom, that he would withhold PR efforts for the film Mission Impossible III.
“Who’s got a comm line to HBO? Who at CAA [the Creative Artists Agency] has influence with someone at HBO? Those are the questions that are already being asked,” Rinder continues. “I’m sure they already have good intelligence that has told them for some time that this was going to be at Sundance. And they’ve been working on it. Who knows Redford, who knows the head of HBO, Miscavige will be asking.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if they send another delegation like they did to CNN. Ten people went to Atlanta to try and stop Anderson Cooper. They did the same thing to [former Tampa Bay Times journalist] Joe Childs, invited him to the Fort Harrison Hotel and in a room there were ten people at a table, yelling at him about his plans to write a story. That’s probably the same thing that will happen with HBO. They’ll send a bunch of people to convince the HBO executives that Gibney is relying on unreliable sources,” Rinder says.
As for how good this film should be, let’s take a look at what Alex Gibney has done in the past.
Here’s Roger Ebert’s review of Gibney’s 2008 film, Taxi to the Dark Side, which won an Oscar for best documentary, and also won a Peabody Award.
“Alex Gibney’s horrifying documentary ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ uses the death of [an Iraqi taxi driver named] Dilawar as an entry point into a remorseless indictment of the Bush administration’s unofficially condoned policy of the torture of suspects, which is forbidden by U.S. constitutional and military law and international agreements, but justified under the ‘necessity’ of working the dark side.”
Here’s Kenneth Turan’s review of Gibney’s 2013 documentary, The Armstrong Lie.
“Aside from his hatred of losing, the film posits that Armstrong got so caught up in the mythic drama of his own story — cancer survivor becomes the Superman of cycling — that he couldn’t resist the unexpected comeback that would be the logical next chapter. The whole truth about the complicated, charismatic man may never come out, but ‘The Armstrong Lie’ is closer than we ever thought we’d get.”
Here’s David Edelstein’s review of 2013’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.
“Gibney has a talent for creating a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to experience the full scope of this ugly, scary story. It’s not just Assange’s colleagues who talk. A few ex-CIA and Defense Department officials appear surprisingly sympathetic to the abstract idea that there are too many secrets. But what to do about that? ‘We Steal Secrets’ is a documentary with the overflowing texture of fiction. It’s ‘The Hacker’s Tragedy’.”
Also, it’s important to point out that the film ‘Going Clear’ will probably result in several waves of publicity that will put Scientology in the media’s focus. There will be a wave of stories around the premiere at Sundance — even though relatively few people will get to see the film — then another wave when the documentary later airs on HBO. (Whether it will have a theater run before that, we don’t know yet.) And then there may be another wave of publicity come contest time more than a year from now.
All we know for sure right now is that Going Clear has a premiere date, and it’s coming up fast.
Posted by Tony Ortega on December 8, 2014 at 15:00
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