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Death in the Jungle
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
JONESTOWN: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple: Directed by Stanley Nelson. Written by Marcia Smith. Music by Tom Phillips. Seventh Art Releasing, 2006. 86 minutes. Not rated.
Director Stanley Nelson’s elegantly told film about the rise and terrible fall of Jim Jones and his Jonestown settlement is an affecting, engrossing document, horrifying and fascinating to watch. Beginning with Jones’ childhood and pacing swiftly through the years, Jonestown slows in the ’70s, when Jones established himself in California before fleeing to Guyana on the eve of a revealing article’s publication in New West magazine. Told in large part through interviews with former Peoples Temple members, Jonestown survivors and carefully used archival footage, the film offers a portrait of the contradictory persona of Jim Jones: cruel, charming, manipulative, racially progressive, unpredictable, welcoming, hypocritical. But it fails to satisfyingly explore or explain how Jones’ charisma was enough to convince more than 900 people to follow him to the middle of nowhere and then, on a dark day in November 1978, to death.
As the film reaches its bitter conclusion, bits of the story slip through the cracks; it would have been more illuminating to hear a Jonestown survivor describe how he escaped than to see that explanation in plain text on the screen at the film’s close. Jonestown is largely a historical document, with little by way of analysis; the story is told by those who were there, with little commentary from those who, later, might have studied what took place. Still, Jonestown‘s calm tone — there isn’t a hint of sensationalism — is welcome; it would be even harder to watch the film were the filmmakers not so gentle with both their interviewees and the audience.
This most lurid of stories is presented both historically and personally, and if it is hard to want to take anything away from the film when you leave the theater, well, perhaps that is, in part, the point. We think we’re smarter than this; we think this could never happen now. But the bright, intelligent people who fell under Jones’ thrall appear to have thought exactly the same thing.
Weekend matinees of Jonestown begin Saturday, Jan. 20 at the Bijou.