Jonestown

If after Zodiac you’re still hankering for filmed versions of the creepiest recent episodes in California social history, try Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Never mind how inured you think you are to all the jokes about drinking the Kool-Aid; this is unsettling stuff.

More so, maybe, because Nelson’s close inspection of the notorious late-’70s personality cult doesn’t finally offer any easy way to get your head around 909 simultaneous suicides. His portrait is dutiful and devastating, but leaves so many haunting questions open that it can’t reasonably be called demystifying.

It settles early on into boilerplate biography: the weirdo loner kid from Indiana (so far so good), whose boyhood hobbies included killing cats and staging their funerals (OK, red flag), but who later pioneered Indianapolis’ first racially integrated church (major bonus points). On the strength of progressive optimism, Jones Pied-Pipered his growing congregation to the Golden State in 1965 and, before long, became a palpable force in San Francisco political life. Then he descended into paranoid, despotic brutality, and turned an Edenic South American village into hell on Earth.

Here’s where Nelson’s legwork comes in. He gets survivors to talk of loved ones dying in their arms. He replays horrific recordings of children wailing while their parents poisoned them. After a while, actually, it seems like closure is the last thing on Nelson’s mind. Sometimes this reads as narrative weakness—indeed, a more probing comment on the gullibility of disenfranchised idealists would elevate the film from outwardly good to profoundly great. But, in retrospect, this tacit admission of helplessness in the face of such material also seems like proper humility.

What hits hardest isn’t the familiar footage of corpses lining tropical knolls in the Guyanese jungle; it’s the “before” pictures, from when all those faces still looked so hopeful, so fresh.

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