Not every documentary has to be a great work of aesthetics, I suppose, but the career of the remarkably prolific Alex Gibney has been uniquely frustrating in that regard. He's great at pop journalism: gathering information, sorting it into an argument, and finding all the ways to undercut and poke holes in the counter-arguments of his enemies. Leave a Gibney film, and you will be educated. The flipside to this is that, virtually without exception, his films are tedious drudgery to get through: they have no cinematic soul, functioning strictly as cases for the prosecution, well-marshaled and placed in a compelling order, but dry as a sea of sawdust. I have one solitary question that I bring with me when I watch anything in what we might all the "issues of the day" subgenre of documentary: am I getting anything from this movie that I wouldn't get just as well from a feature article in Time or The Atlantic or whatever Serious-Minded Glossy Magazine you prefer? Gibney's films resolutely fail to pass this test.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, happily, comes closer to passing than anything he's made since Taxi to the Dark Side. I'm not certain that its central argument - the Church of Scientology, is a con game invented so that an awful, awful man could dodge his taxes, and it is a cult that commits terrible personal atrocities against its members who even think about deviating from dogma - should or does come as a revelation to anybody, but there's an undoubted value in assembling all of the evidence that has been lying in this corner or that for all this long while and putting it into one easily digestible form. The Church of Scientology, after all, is basically the closest thing we have in the world right now to an actual villainous organization from a James Bond movie: it marries the most literal, dictionary-definition behavior of a cult (primarily in that it forcibly separates members from family and loved ones who aren't members) with quantities of cash that enable it to have international power on a truly frightening scale, and all over it overseen by a man of potent negative charisma and transparent cruelty, David Miscavige.

Going Clear gathers an impressive volume of evidence proving all of these points, while also exploring Scientology's history, using many recordings of creator-madman L. Ron Hubbard himself, and sketching out his personal history as a man who fell into believing his own outlandish lies. There are also testimonies from current and former Scientologists that clarify why it is that a person might actually want to throw themselves into this mud pit: an earnest belief that Hubbard's philosophies can change the world motivates a surprisingly large number of people, it turns out, and it only shores up Gibney's argument that the CoS is Very Bad News when he can demonstrate the sincerity of true believers that then get badly exploited and abused by the various petty displays of power doled out at the top levels of the church.

It's a grand history lesson, and an impressively vigorous op-ed; but is it cinema? Reader, I do not wish to say that it is. By all means, I'm enraptured by the structure of the film's argument and the volume of supporting details it trots out, but this is one to watch while you're doing the dishes, or I don't know, assembling a jigsaw puzzle, or whatever.