It seems odd that there hasn’t been a film made about what happened in Jonestown in 1978 since the early 80s, the events of that time put such a scar on the national psyche. Whatever the reason for that, Stanley Nelson’s JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE PEOPLE’S TEMPLE more than makes up for the lapse. His is a compassionate yet incisive study of the congregation followed Jim Jones, so blindly loyal to his initial preachings of a heaven on earth and a sense of community that not even those progressive times had imagined, that nothing could dissuade them even as the Kool-Aid was being poured out.
The mass murder at Jonestown, there is no other way to think of it after seeing what led up to it, is recounted at the end of the film, but in a very real sense, because the audience knows where it the story leads, it pervades every moment of screen time. The story, though, is of the entire history of the temple, beginning with the childhood of its founder. He emerges as a flawed hero, answering a higher calling, but unable to respond appropriately. He rejected the prejudices of his times and of his community, at one point, when his father refuses to allow a black friend of Jones’ into the family home, Jones himself refuses to enter, too, ever again. He and his wife later become one of the first white couples in the country to adopt a black child, naming him Jim Jones, Jr. a name that child, now an adult who appears in the film, has kept to this day. That sense of justice was entwined with Jones’ religious fervor and a need to preach that runs deep. As a small child, he officiated at the funerals of pets, and when the situation didn’t present itself in the natural course of things, he would murder them in order to hold services over them. It’s that moment among many that provides a startling insight into the workings of his mind, a focus that like those of saints, was on the next world, but like madmen one that placed him above those around him, even as he spoke out for the downtrodden.
The seeds of his madness already demonstrably in place, the film shifts to the founding and history of the People’s Temple as seen through the eyes of the people that were part of it. This is the film at its most visceral. For the first time anywhere, there is footage of Jones preaching with an inspiring mix of fire and paternalism that electrified his followers, many of whom still feel a tug of nostalgia for that time, even through the pain of the sorrow and loss that came of it. The onscreen interviews are deliberately low key, even if the emotions that well up during them are not. It has been almost thirty years and most of the people speaking have in one way or another come to terms with what happened, if not why. Throughout, and this is the truly remarkable thing that Nelson emphasizes as though trying to understand it himself, there is not so much anger at Jones for the deaths of loved ones, as hurt at the betrayal of the utopian vision he made them believe was attainable.
Nelson is respectful to the victims and survivors in his treatment of them not just in the gentle way that he shows those survivors remembering, but also in the way he shows the charismatic hold that Jones had on them even as things began to get palpably dangerous. There is never a moment where these people seem foolish or stupid. To the contrary, they are idealistic and committed to a making a better world, the best that humanity has to offer who were betrayed by a man who at once shepherded their vision as a true-believer, and fell victim to his own demons taking them with him. And is this way, JONESTOWN is much more than a record of one horrific moment in history or the cautionary tale of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. In the end it’s an unabashed tribute to those who have the courage to dream.