'Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief': What the Critics Are Saying

Based on Lawrence Wright's 2013 book, Alex Gibney's doc traces the religious org under L. Ron Hubbard and David Miscavige, and includes new material about famous followers Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is director Alex Gibney's documentary about the famously litigious, allegedly religious organization, from its inception by L. Ron Hubbard to its current direction under David Miscavige.

The doc, based on Lawrence Wright's 2013 book of the same name, includes new material about famous followers Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and features commentary by writer-director Paul Haggis and actor Jason Beghe, both former members of the church. It opens in a limited engagement on Friday, and will air on HBO on March 29.

See what top critics are saying about Going Clear:

The Hollywood Reporter's Leslie Felperin says, "This impeccably assembled and argued film represents a brave, timely intervention into debates around the organization that have been simmering for some time. ... 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."

Additionally, "although devout Scientologists will dutifully pour scorn on the portrait drawn here, Wright and Gibney take pains to paint LRH in an almost sympathetic light, suggesting that even if there was some avaricious calculation in his early ambition to start a religion, his belief in its teachings was ultimately sincere and that his mental imbalance later in life was almost deserving of pity. ... In the end, the main point of this deeply admirable documentary is to reach and enlighten that broader audience in a way that far too many publications and media outlets have been afraid to do. Experts who have never been part of the church, such as campaigning journalist Tony Ortega and The Hollywood Reporter's own Kim Masters, offer astute analysis and factual context about why the organization has recruited within the entertainment industry and why it has managed to survive innumerable legal battles — although new cases may turn that tide."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis notes, "While the movie advances a case against Scientology, it never fully illuminates why Haggis — and most of the other former Scientologists on screen — were attracted to it in the first place. ... Gibney spends a lot of time on Scientology’s celebrities, but those sections of the film pale next to the harrowing allegations of the church’s serious physical and psychological abuse." In comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, "Going Clear could have used some of that film’s modulation; its compassion too. At the very least it could use a bit of Wright’s generosity and intellectual reach. ... [Wright's] book is critical of Scientology, but it is also a serious, sincere and intellectually curious attempt at understanding it. Gibney, who enters swinging and keeps on swinging, comes across as less interested in understanding Scientology than in exposing its secrets, which makes for a lively and watchable documentary if not an especially enlightening one."

The Guardian's Brian Moylan explains, "All the information about the modern church is taken from those who have left it — a small collection of men, including high-profile defector Paul Haggis, all of whom are familiar with one another and many of whom have axes to grind. While I don’t doubt their stories, such reliance does make the film a bit one-sided. ... Going Clear firmly makes its case for classifying Scientology as a cult rather than a religion, and for revoking its tax[-exempt] status. However, other than the Cruise revelations, there isn’t much new here that wasn’t in Wright’s book or the New Yorker article that inspired it. Gibney’s main skill here then is in the editing." For example, "footage of Cruise from official church events and video is chopped and spliced to put him in as dubious a light as possible."

Village Voice's Alan Scherstuhl says, "Augmenting his talking heads with animation and inspired stock footage, Gibney dignifies Hubbard with the capacity to conjure feelings of connection and magnificence, never losing sight of what brings people into the fold, which makes their attempts to escape it all the more harrowing. Still, the richness of detail of Wright's book is lost. Bit I missed the most: that after waiting months for back pay, staffers had to spend much of their earnings on lavish birthday gifts for Miscavige, a man who once honored his rank as captain of the Sea Org by having blue vests with epaulets on them made up for his dogs."

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