Written Fall 1998 for Honors 291 : New Religious Movements
Once you read the outer box of the movie Jonestown, you will be in the perfect mood for a bloodbath. The words on the box scream "Based on the true story of murder and mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana," as if anyone needed a reminder of the events that had unfolded in November 1978. But once you get past the packaging, you will find yourself watching a movie that begins with a death (and resurrection) obsessed Jim Jones, preaching to a bunch children, while he himself is around the age of eight or nine. It is quickly shown to the audience what humble (in other words backwater) beginnings that the infamous preacher comes from. From there it is a quick trip to his evangelistic start at a church to his dictatorship of the Peoples Temple. The movie, however, seems more interested in showing off how bad and, well, actually evil Jim Jones was; not ever stopping to consider just how complex the nature of evil really is and how complex human nature is and was in the years of Peoples Temple.
At the start, Jim Jones is shown quasi-sympathetically, trying to crusade against an archetypal villainous, white-dominated church more concerned about white attendance than the immortal souls of the surrounding black populace. This of course leaves the viewer softened up for the tyrannical changes that are, according to the movie, just around the corner and ready to be put into place by Jim Jones, presumably to demonstrate how unstable he was. While it is true that originally the Peoples Temple began as a place that tried to promote integration and gave many social services to its members, it did not change overnight, as the movie suggests it did.
In the movie, Jim Jones travels to visit the famous Father Divine, who has made a commune work and function without any kind of financial difficulties. Once the visit is over, Jim Jones is convinced that by following Father Divine’s example, he must basically shake down his members to keep the Temple’s book in the black; telling his followers to give up everything they have to him. And, according to Father Divine, should indulge adulterous affairs with any and all willing women of the church. (During the course of the movie, the viewer will wonder if any woman in Peoples Temple is not sleeping with Jim Jones.) Of course, this is par for the course for a man that is, according to the running theme of the movie, a man that is on the level with Stalin.
As the movie proceeds, the viewer is shown Jim Jones being, within the span of two minutes, Jim Jones at a movie theater and seeing a show about thermonuclear weapons and the next Sunday, (we are left to assume) telling his congregation about the coming nuclear armageddon. He tells his church that there will be few places left untouched by the nuclear holocaust; one of them being a small town in California. Once this has begun, the move to California is on. Once there, he tries to build a new church and in the process meets a young man with a drug problem who is looking for a job. Jones than proceeds to help the junkie quit his heroin habit. From there Jones quickly engages in a homoerotic relationship with a him than proceeds to seduces him in front of the former addict’s wife (yes, I rolled my eyes at that part as well).
The movie also shows the reverend Jones giving his sermon while two black clad enforcers ensure that everyone is paying complete attention. Once someone is caught falling asleep, he is assaulted by predictable religious zealots that spew lines that would make Susan Lucci proud, like "Now are you sorry for what you have done." (Wow, I never saw that coming.) At one point, the scene becomes so melodramatic I was waiting for Jim Jones to pick up a baseball bat and start talking about how the congregation is like a baseball team. But the film keeps up its pace, and soon, amid growing allegations of immoral and adulterous practices, as well as cruel and unusual punishments that have been doled out by the church’s enforcers, the group moves to Guyana under Jones’ clandestine leadership, to build a new community free from the corruption of American practices.
Once in Guyana, the film quickly unravels the last gasps of Peoples Temple. Jim Jones is seen as losing all control and running money laundering operation; using groups of drugs that could quite conceivably power the warp drive of the Enterprise, drugging other women to presumably make them his love slaves (of course Jones is only drugging the good looking ones; the man may be insane, but he still has taste) and running Jonestown in a manner that would impress the wardens at Buchenwald. If there is any real history in this, it is drowned out by the melodrama.
As the hour of Leo Ryan’s visit approaches, Jones is close to the embodiment of paranoia. The movie would seem to say " Hey look, he’s obviously evil, can’t you people in the cult tell?" The movie then seems to indicate that except for a certain few, most of the people are either willing devotees or just plain morons. One feels that the picture of the gate outside of the Jonestown plantation should read "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
After Leo Ryan is shot and killed, the movie shows most of the people just itching to kill themselves for Jones, and having a rather relaxing time, as if that is how a person really dies when they ingest cyanide. Death from cyanide poisoning is not a pleasant way to go. The cyanide prevents a person’s tissues from using the oxygen in the bloodstream and a person, in effect dies from asphyxiation. And there was decent in the ranks about the decision to kill themselves. Some people, including a woman like Christine Miller, tried to convince Jones and the others that a move to Russia would be preferable to killing themselves. The movie would have people believe that everyone in Jonestown was on the microphone, shouting how great mass suicide is if it is done in the name of Jim Jones.
The movie, all in all, attempts a portrait of Jim Jones. But the problem is that trying to condense the entire contents of the life of Jim Jones and the interaction of the people in Peoples Temple is far too complex to have much depth in about 3 hours. People in the real world are not so simple; the issues we face are not so easily defined as Hollywood tries to make it. The movie only glances at the socioeconomic aspects of the members of Peoples Temple. It fails to show that Peoples Temple did have some positive impact on the lives’ of its members, especially many who were poor and unemployed, who received a higher quality of life than otherwise would have found outside the church. In a time before the social welfare net that America has today, Peoples Temple gave many kinds of aid to the downtrodden in society. The movie, however, only briefly touches on these very important points, which were the foundation that helped to build Peoples Temple in the first place.