Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is going to resist making a "drinking the Kool-Aid" joke here.
"The Peoples Temple had the power to be something big and powerful and great. Yet, for whatever reason, Jim took the other road."—Grace Stoen
Leo Ryan, a U.S. Congressman from the San Mateo, CA region, was hearing some disturbing things from his constituents. Many of them were complaining about a prominent and controversial San Francisco church called Peoples Temple, headed by a charismatic preacher named Jim Jones. Peoples Temple was known more for its political activism than anything else, actively reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised of the Bay Area; the poor, the elderly, the drug-addicted. Recently, though, disturbing stories had come to light about the Temple, and especially about Jones himself. Stories of financial exploitation, cult-like activity, sexual deviance, and—most disturbing—stories that the Temple didn't allow people to leave.
Peoples Temple had leased a large tract of land in Guyana and had begun to build a "paradise" there for its followers, called "Jonestown." After a handful of Temple defectors helped a San Francisco newspaper prepare a large investigative report on the Temple's activities, Jones fled the country, taking over 900 Temple members to Guyana with him to join those already in Jonestown. Several family members of the Jonestown followers said that Jones would not let their relatives leave the Guyana compound, which led to Ryan's investigation. On November 17, 1978, Ryan flew to Guyana with a handful of aides and reporters to investigate first-hand the claims of these family members.
Two days later, he, Jones, and over 900 Peoples Temple followers were dead. Ryan and some of his party were murdered at the airport by Temple members as they tried to leave, the entire scene captured on a dead cameraman's videotape. The Temple members were victims of the largest mass murder/suicide in history. Jones was dead of a gunshot wound, possibly self-inflicted.
The Jonestown massacre is one of the defining moments of the Seventies; one of those things you remember vividly if you were alive at the time. It didn't seem real—someone murdered a Congressman? Nine hundred people drank cyanide-laced grape drink? Parents injected their children with poison? Even today, nearly thirty years later, one question lingers: why? Why did this tragedy happen?
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple doesn't attempt to answer this question; indeed, there probably is no answer to that question. Instead, this excellent documentary—originally screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, then aired on PBS as part of their American Experience series—simply lets the players tell the story. There were a handful of survivors of Jonestown; some of them recount their almost unimaginable experiences here. Additionally, a large amount of rare footage of Peoples Temple activities, both from San Francisco and Jonestown, fleshes out the Temple side of the story, in a way. The combined sources tell a fascinating and disturbing story, one that leaves you with more questions than answers.
This is a wonderfully constructed documentary, among the best I've ever seen. As the narrative begins, the Peoples Temple seems relatively harmless, and possibly even a force for good. They grow in popularity—and political power—after their move to San Francisco. And then, in one jarring moment, a door is opened, and we see that all is not as it seems with the Temple. From there, the disturbing facts (and evidence of Jones' possible mental illness) start to add up and snowball. And all the while, the viewer—who knows what's coming, after all—is left with an ominous sense of despair. There is no hope for these people; virtually everyone in most of the footage presented died that day. The survivors tell their stories vividly; their pain is obvious and raw. The film, to its credit, does not soft-pedal the subject material in the least. As a final note, it has one of the most powerful end credit sequences I've ever seen.
I can't really think of anything bad to say about this film. I would have liked to have seen more information on the aftermath of the mass suicide, and more of the interview with Jim Jones' adopted son (who was away from the compound on the day of the suicide), but these are tiny, tiny complaints in the big picture. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is simply a fantastic documentary, capturing a very sad moment in time with vivid clarity.
The anamorphic transfer on this disc is quite good; even the vintage footage is quite crisp, colorful, and in good shape. The stereo audio track is adequate for the job. A handful of "deleted scenes" are included; they're really a combination of extended sequences from the film and additional interview footage with the Jonestown survivors. They're decent additions, but nothing here would have added to the main feature. The interview with filmmaker Stanley Nelson is interesting and lively; his takes on both the varying attitudes towards the Temple among the interviewees and all the questions raised by the massacre are quite insightful and candid. It's a high quality package for a high quality film.
I can't recommend this documentary highly enough. It's truly one of the best examples of historical documentary filmmaking I've ever seen. Case closed.
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