The phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" has become a common part of our vernacular, suggesting a kind of lethal acquiescence in the name of getting along with the group or bowing to authority. It's easy to use the expression without recalling the reality of the Jonestown massacre, if you ever knew the details. Stanley Nelson's impeccable documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, provides a compelling reminder of and context for the the 909 people who committed mass suicide in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978.
As leader of Peoples Temple, Rev. Jim Jones automatically would command a queasy fascination, and the film offers plenty of footage of Jones in pulpit, his sermons ringing from behind his suspicious sunglasses. Rather than attempt to get inside Jones' head, or reveal his secret financial practices, Jonestown emphasizes his followers' points of view, to offer a kind of inside-out perspective of Peoples Temple.
The interviewees -- all articulate, normal-looking citizens -- explain that Peoples Temple initially espoused admirable ideals. In the 1950s, Jones' church was ahead of the curve for integration and interracial equality; two decades later, it represented a revival of the flagging idealism of the '60s. Nelson first presents the positives, and then gradually reveals the sleep deprivation, sex practices, constant work and other techniques that Jones used to control his community.
When Jones flees with followers to Jonestown, Guyana, ahead of disastrous publicity, the concerned families of the cult members mobilize to spur government action (an ironic example of people organized for admirable ends). The documentary becomes almost agonizingly suspenseful as it recounts the fateful visit of a contingent featuring California Congressman Leo Ryan and the press on Nov. 17, 1978. From a misleadingly happy, stage-managed celebration the night before to the day of shoot-outs and cyanide, Jonestown reveals tragic confrontations, captured on both film and audiotape. Some of the interviewees were firsthand witnesses to the poisonings who escaped into the jungle.
Jonestown shows enormous sympathy for the members of Peoples Temple, such as the woman who says that at first sight of Jonestown, she thought that Guyana was heaven on Earth. "Now I can't believe in heaven any more," she weeps. Jonestown affirms the importance to have ideals for human betterment, and brims with righteous anger that Jim Jones betrayed those ideals so completely.
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple ***** Directed by Stanley Nelson. Stars Jim Jones. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Dec. 1. At Plaza Theatre.