‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’ Documentary Review Roundup

January 27, 2015

‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’ had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. There has been much fanfare over the documentary directed by Alex Gibney (“The Armstrong Lie”) based on Lawrence Wright’s bestselling book of the same title which sets out to reveal the truth about the controversial religion, as its title implies. But what do the movie critics think of the film itself? What of that transition from the printed page to the big screen?

Alex Gibney

As noted, the setting was the Sundance International Film Festival in Utah where the movie found its first audience, its first reactions and, indeed, much critical acclaim. From the outset the movie seemed to be in capable and sure hands, as the Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (picture above) has already an impressive legacy in film history for documentaries that are relentless and unsparing in pursuit of truth, the most recent of these being ‘The Armstrong Lie’ about the now disgraced cyclist and philanthropist Lance Armstrong.

Now here is yet another subject that requires much courage to pursue as the Church of Scientology — founded by the late science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard — is noted for its attempts over the years to silence critics with lawsuits and with stinging public denouncements. Lawrence Wright, author of the book, is the Pulitzer-prize winning author of ‘The Looming Tower’ who had, in his capacity as a staff writer for The New Yorker, written a profile of a high-profile former member of the church, Paul Haggis. Subsequently his investigation of the organization and interviews with former members led to his eventual critically acclaimed nonfiction book. Thus, with such a solid — indeed formidable foundation — there was much anticipation of a documentary version of ‘Going Clear.’

And indeed the documentary brings the harrowing details of the book to the big screen, and collectively, while they may not be new or revelatory per se, they are generating quite a buzz.

The movie critics are weighing in and reviews are quite favorable of the movie and its explosive content, which will be new to those who did not read the book and/or are not familiar with what former members have had to say about Scientology. Here’s a roundup.

“….Among the bombshells asserted by eight former church members: Scientology intentionally broke up Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman; it tortured some of its members in a prison known as “the hole” and subjected others to hard labor; it harassed those who left the organization and forced their family members to cut off all contact.

The film offers an intimate portrait of founder L. Ron Hubbard (or LRH as he’s referred to by members) and follows the rise of current leader David Miscavige, alleging his misuse of power and that he physically abused several members…..” — USA Today

“…. The documentary then begins the process of tearing into the absurdities of Scientology-as-faith, including its roots in the perennial bestseller “Dianetics” and the various oddities including auditing, going clear, engrams, The Bridge, Operating Thetan levels and the gloriously absurd grand mythology, including Xenu, volcanos and thetans. If “Going Clear” featured nothing but Paul Haggis’ flummoxed reaction to the Scientology space opera, it would be worth it. It’s the best thing Haggis has been involved with since “EZ Streets.”….” — Hitfix

“… With the same methodical assiduousness he has displayed in previous investigative films such as the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Gibney provides an authoritative overview of Scientology’s history, beliefs and organizational structure, drawn from testimony from some of its most prominent survivors and critics. Supplemented by rare archival footage, almost entirely deployed under the copyright terms of fair use when no news agencies or rights holders agreed to cooperate, the film is an accessible, one-stop shop that will comprehensively counter apathy from viewers who might consider the organization nothing more than a bunch of harmless kooks who believe in mumbo jumbo about intergalactic overlord Xenu and volcanoes…..” — Hollywood Reporter

“….[Tom] Cruise is one of those who emerges from this the worst; Gibney’s film makes the claim that the actor’s reluctance to distance himself from the faith was the key factor in his split with Nicole Kidman. Footage of Cruise from official church events and video is chopped and spliced to put him in as dubious a light as possible; the film also accuses him of using Scientologist workers paid 40 cents an hour to trick out his cars and houses.” […] “Alex Gibney’s documentary about L Ron Hubbard’s religion – reportedly vetted by 160 lawyers – makes for entertaining and dismaying viewing, but new revelations are a little thin on the ground ….” — The Guardian

“… If Paul Thomas Andersons’ The Master presented an evocative fictional story inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, muckraking documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney offers this harrowing real-life counterpart: a searing exposé that reveals Scientology’s merciless ways. Gibney’s best work since the Catholic Church sex abuse film Mea Maxima Culpa, Going Clear lays out a lucid argument against the organization, combining engaging interviews, archival footage and evocative visual illustrations……” Screen Daily

“….Though the lid was blown off the Church of Scientology long ago, Alex Gibney’s powder-keg documentary, “Going Clear,” should certainly rattle the walls, if not shake them to their very foundations. Gibney had an excellent blueprint to work from in Lawrence Wright’s exhaustively researched 2013 nonfiction bestseller (from which the film takes its title), but he’s also added much fascinating material here, including new interviews and proprietary Scientology video footage that has to be seen to be disbelieved…..” –Variety

“….Though the movie eventually comes around to explaining the ludicrous conceit behind this practice — Hubbard’s assertion that human beings are infected by alien souls — the movie’s meticulous explanation for the test’s seeming effectiveness ensures that “Going Clear” sticks to an empirical approach. With a measured journalistic prowess on par with his source material, Gibney takes nothing for granted….” — IndieWire

The movie trailer has not yet been released and will be added when available. Meantime, a report from the Sundance world premiere is below.

Pictures: PR Photos

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