Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006, Stanley Nelson)


In part as a result of a lifelong suspicion of religion and cults and in part because the underlying horror of it is nearly Gothic in scope and sorrow, the Jonestown massacre (some say mass suicide, but… we’re going to say massacre) has fascinated me for much of my life. Over the years I’ve pored over books and documents and TV documentaries on the matter, and with the advent of the internet was transfixed by original news reports from 1978 and audio recordings (and transcripts even earlier) of Jones’ hours of prosthelytizing and the panicked, heated discussions just before the vat of cyanide was forced into the bodies of 907 innocent people. It’s a morbid obsession, certainly, but one I don’t really apologize for; it’s a matter that needs to be studied and kept alive as much as its eeriness and the window it provides into darker corners of human nature may give an intellectual or emotional rush.

A major documentary about this is likely to automatically interest me, but luckily Stanley Nelson’s film, while it isn’t and never claims to be definitive or a “last word,” is an intelligent and unique dissection of the matter — its broadest utility is twofold: it reveals the uncomfortable truth about the conniving, charismatic Jim Jones while humanizing him more than any number of outside accounts over these thirty-five years; and it brings fully home the immense devastation and the cost of lives, the violation of trust, the murder of hopeful and well-intentioned people (many of them children and seniors) that lie at the core of the Jonestown story, the tragic implications of which are brought fully to the forefront here better than any lurid or dry examination could. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple doesn’t merely explain or recount the years of naive hope, the months of uncertainty, and the culmination of it all in one dreadful night, it reincarnates and explores them before our eyes. Never before have the occupants of Jonestown been so visible to a large audience with no sense of otherness.

The picture, screened at festivals before being co-opted by PBS’ American Experience series, is chilling in its minimalism and its shrinking away from broad analysis of Jones and the Peoples Temple phenomenon — free of narration and with interviews and voices of survivors and peripheral figures both (no sociology professors), through Jones’ face and the faces of his followers, it tells what amounts to an alternate history of America from 1955 to 1978, the years of Peoples Temple, times so often seen in terms of their broad relationship to a cheery pop culture or to advances in social justice or to the brewing horrors in Vietnam, rendered now as the dark prelude to a cataclysm of loss and pain. Jones was an integrationist and his utopian, pseudo-socialist views carefully hoodwinked members of the working class, especially African-Americans. It all begins so much like any other cult or religion or mass murder — with simple deception, a smiling face, and a tantalizing promise of transcendence and hope. From San Francisco across the continents to Guyana, the tale is epic in scope but its eyes are downcast always, always infected by the curtain of superiority, condescension, control, and finally evil.

Some of the survivors quoted herein would object to a characterization of Jones as evil; maybe this is a valid point and maybe not, but his actions in his final decade of life (at the very least, though the film suggests all the way back to childhood) were a calculated and self-aggrandizing exercise in assertion of psychological control over others, indulgence of perversion, and a manipulation of bodies into perfect synchronization with his often unclear and senseless impulses — in essence, an unchecked and pure outburst of prolonged, aggressive insanity. Former Peoples Temple members such as escapees Tim Carter and Stanley Clayton (whose accounts of losing their families are unimaginably deastating), Hue Fortson, Grace Stoen, Mike Touchette and Jones rape victim Deborah Layton give voice to the haunting reality and mark how the film itself is both a cry of sorrow and a challenge to the cycle of inevitability in the evil, insane acts propagated by a man like Jones. We learn about this in the hope that we won’t allow it again.

The Life of Death of Peoples Temple cannot explain the duplicitous Jones, nor can anyone, but it can explain how he gained his cachet all too chillingly well by following his salesman-like ideological promises of paradise from Indianapolis to Ukiah to San Francisco to Guyana; what’s clear is that his need to program others fronted his central rage and heartlessness, permitting free reign behind carefully locked doors to his sexual predation, his desire to humiliate and, ultimately, his murderous instincts. The “only true heterosexual,” as he called himself, spent decades collecting lovers and victims from his small army of worshipful followers. Mostly unadorned footage from the years of his height and his downfall, up to the last moments before an NBC camera crew followed Congressman Leo Ryan to the fateful confrontation on the air strip, captures his charisma and his off-the-rails absence of a grip on reality, which itself was perhaps a cover for a more nefarious purpose.

“I can tell you the answer now,” he’d say, “because I’m a prophet.” Jones’ effect on his followers was a twenty-year development leading to Jonestown — he isolated them to make it easier to control them, and refused their departure. His largely black congregation was led to Guyana on the pretext that it’d mark an escape from the racist and evil institution of American capitalism, but when he became their only filter or source of information from the outside world and suggested his People could never leave because the U.S. wouldn’t have them back, and continued to collect all of their available assets, who was truly continuing the slavery tradition? This film makes all this abundantly clear, makes more obvious than ever that this “revolutionary suicide” was nothing of the kind — that it was the culmination of a sociopath, an opportunity for a narcissistic, barely incoherent wacko to spew himself and his perversions and demons all over everyone.

We reach Jonestown about forty minutes into the picture, and at the point that the onscreen titles announce the date as November 17, a day prior to the massacre of 909 Temple members, the tension becomes nearly painful. The last half hour of this documentary is as suspenseful and terrifying as any straight thriller. What’s perhaps most chilling is the alarming amount of footage available from the final night of Jonestown, less than twenty-four hours before the singing and dancing and celebrating hordes of people, all out to impress and placate Congressman Ryan, will be dead, with little inkling of what lies ahead of them as a result of Jones’ ruthless, paranoid protection of his own neck. When Ryan is assassinated, it’s inevitable that Jones will be arrested, so in a final act of true, cruellest evil, he takes everyone’s life with his — including innumerable children, who are heard screaming and crying on the infamous “death tape,” some of which is included here. A grim note of horror hangs over everything we see.

While Jonestown is ultimately a talking head documentary, its eye for strange detail gives it inordinate vividness, and at times even a sense of eccentric humor, especially in regard to Jones’ strange life and contradictions. We learn early on that he sold pet monkeys (replacing one monkey that hanged itself) in the ’50s, which is a more wholesome eccentricity than the one about telling Tim Carter that he, the “one true heterosexual,” was available at any time Carter wished to be “fucked in the ass.” Much of the sparkling clarity of this, which brings home how frighteningly recent this piece of history is, comes from the still-youthful and exuberant recollections of those interviewed. Aside from Carter and Clayton, Jones’ son Jim Jones Jr. and Ryan aide Jackie Speier, who nearly died on the air strip, are remarkably insightful. More frightening yet, a few (such as Eugene Smith) still seem in some form to believe in the Jones mythology — a testament to the psychological power of cult.

A part of me finds Jones a fascinatingly weird character in a manner sort of benign, and it would be easy to make some quirky production out of this, or to celebrate his supposed achievements in creating a socialist paradise (dubious at best), or to pity his increasingly unhealthy lifestyle as the drugs bloated him and his speech slurred, but the film never once allows the man to be acquitted of his actions. On some level, it’s easy to draw a line between his wild 24-hour histrionics over the communal loudspeaker at Jonestown, his loud rants about not much, to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father-like character in The Master — a pure if cautionary entertainment, particularly with Joaquin Phoenix’s cycle in that film being clearly a stunted version of the sort of sycophantic cult member who might’ve pulled the trigger on Ryan. But by the end of this chilling, maddening film, I got that same feeling of some tragedy that’s long been an abstract historical event suddenly becoming a thing that happened, to real and breathing people, as with Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. You brush up against the past here in such a manner as to find it hard to shake.

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