“The revelations in Alex Gibney’s new documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief won’t come as a huge surprise to folks who’ve read Lawrence Wright’s devastating, similarly titled book-length exposé,” begins Bilge Ebiri at Vulture. “But any way you cut it, this is still spectacular stuff. The film, which will air on HBO in March, debuted at Sundance to a jam-packed overflow audience and a rousing standing ovation—not to mention the sight of fest volunteers forming a human chain around Gibney, Wright, and their subjects at the end of their post-screening Q&A, presumably as a safety precaution…. Gibney’s a bit like a kid in an exposé-candy store here, and you can sense him trying to cram as much as he can into the film. Good for him: Going Clear is jaw-dropping.”
“The prolific Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) excels at untangling complex systems and institutions, and at showing us the human faces behind scandal-making headlines,” writes Variety‘s Scott Foundas. “Unsurprisingly, Going Clear is weighted toward candid, impassioned interviews with ex-Scientologists who share their stories in the hope of dissuading others from following in their footsteps…. Considering that Wright (a producer here, as well as an interview subject) had more than 400 pages to spin his serpentine narrative and Gibney a mere two hours of screen time, a lot has fallen by the wayside. Yet it’s impressive just how much detail Going Clear manages to pack in, especially with regard to the early days of the church under its founder, the sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, Kim Masters, who appears in the film, talks with Gibney and Leslie Felperin calls Going Clear “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.”
In Screen, Anthony Kaufman notes that “the film examines several facets of the ‘religion,’ beginning with an examination of L. Ron Hubbard himself, then charting the evolution of Scientology from a cult phenomenon to a highly secretive, dangerously protective and ‘rapacious’ billion-dollar industry. When seeing archival footage of Hubbard, it’s easy to see where Philip Seymour Hoffman derived his magnetic performance in The Master.” Hubbard “comes across as arrogant and buoyantly egomaniacal. His few recorded interviews suggest a man on the edge of insanity. ‘Are you mad?’ asks one interviewer. And Hubbard doesn’t deny it: ‘The only mad man is the one who doesn’t think he’s mad,’ he replies with a smirk.”
“This is the kind of film that gets more bonkers the deeper you go,” writes Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey.
For Slate, Sharan Shetty‘s rounded up “some of the more striking allegations,” focusing on Scientology’s “cultish leader,” David Miscavige, the ways the Church recruits and keeps its hold on celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, and “disturbing allegations of torture, assault, and human rights abuse.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn notes that Going Clear is “ultimately less about the evils of the church than the motives of the people intent on stopping its oppressive ways. The story closes with the efforts of Scientology critic Jason Beghe to gather many of the film’s subjects in a galvanizing attempt to effect change. As the heroes of Going Clear, they give the movie its underlying value as a form of advocacy.”
More from Michael Cieply, reporting in the New York Times on how the Church is seeking to discredit the film; Daniel Fienberg (HitFix); Brian Moylan (Guardian, 4/5); Lorena O’Neil in THR on the Church’s Twitter campaign against Going Clear; and Nigel M. Smith for Indiewire on the reception at Sundance.
Updates, 1/31: “Ultimately, Gibney’s film is fascinating for the people in it,” finds Katie Walsh at the Playlist. “The filmmaking is nothing exceptional, but what is remarkable is the bravery shown by those who speak out in the film. The interviewees all seem to share a look of mild shock on their faces, like they’ve just walked into the light and their eyes are still adjusting. As they describe their experiences, they seem anguished, embarrassed and sheepish that they were taken in so deeply by this organization. There is a sense of latent awakening that Gibney manages to capture, and that is the most compelling thing about Going Clear. That dawning realization will be spreading soon enough, and that’s clearly what terrifies the leadership of Scientology the most.”
John Horn talks with Gibney for Vulture.
Update, 2/23: Jason Bailey talks with Gibney for Flavorwire.