Can ‘Going Clear’ overcome controversy to become Oscars Documentary frontrunner?

The 2015 Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature has gotten off to an early start with “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” a damning expose of the inner workings of the multi-billion dollar religious organization.

The film, directed by Alex Gibney, is an eye-opening adaptation of Lawrence Wright‘s book of the same title, filled with shocking revelations about the institution that have only been hinted at before now. With an 89% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 82 on Metacritic, “Going Clear” has the critical acclaim necessary to make it a major player in the awards season.

Through use of archival footage, interviews with former members, and dramatic reenactments, the film details the origins of Scientology and its creator, science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, exposing the various mind-control techniques and abuses said to be part of the religion’s practices. The film also examines its stranglehold on various figures in the entertainment industry, most notably Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

The church has already launched a full-blown attack against the film ahead of its HBO premiere, calling into question the validity of the claims made by the former members interviewed by Gibney, including Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis, who practiced the religion for 35 years before leaving in 2009. Given Scientology’s close ties to the Hollywood community, this film is sure to alienate a good portion of the academy. If the documentary branch wants to avoid fanning the flames, it may choose to steer clear of “Going Clear” and leave it off its shortlist entirely.

Gibney does have an Oscar pedigree, however, and that helps. He won Best Documentary Feature for “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007) and was also nominated for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005). And while its subject matter may be controversial, it is undeniably important, which goes a long way with doc voters.

The film opened in limited theatrical release last weekend and will premiere on HBO on March 29. With word of mouth building to a fever pitch, “Going Clear” may become a specialty box-office phenomenon too big for the academy to ignore. So while it may be too soon to declare the film a guaranteed nominee, it’s certainly guaranteed to be in the conversation.

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