Friday, November 16, 2018

Sundance TV’s Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle

It was a horrific event that should have decisively illustrated the perils of utopianism. After all, the members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple all insisted their Guyana settlement was utopia, because they would have been in serious trouble if they denied it. Following investigative journalist Jeff Guinn’s book as a guide, the full story of shocking mass suicide-homicide is carefully chronicled in the four-part Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle (trailer here), directed by Shan Nicholson, which premieres tomorrow on Sundance TV.

Some observers and surviving Temple members still try to give Jones credit for being progressive during his early years in Indianapolis. Yet even then, he had an un-churchly-like desire for power and adulation that drove him to California, where people used to go to pursue their ambitions. Followers found him charismatic and altogether righteous, but the audio recordings of his sermons from those relatively calm years still sound like someone teetering on the brink of megalomania. However, members of the Peoples Temple chose to focus on the sense of community and belonging they found there.

To its credit, Terror in the Jungle clearly and explicitly establishes Jones’ socialist ideology. Tellingly, it quotes Jones on the Spartan communalism imposed on his followers: “keep them poor, keep them tired and they’ll never leave.” That sums up socialism pretty perfectly, doesn’t it? Guinn also points out Jones chose Guyana for the Temple’s international settlement precisely because it was then a socialist country. Yet, the film largely lets local Bay Area liberal Democrats (including the unmentioned Harvey Milk) off the hook for the Faustian bargains they struck with Jones.

Still, in most other respects, Terror is quite thorough and should have plenty of new details for most viewers. Everyone should know Jones had Rep. Leo Ryan murdered (the second sitting Congressman to be killed in office since Republican James M. Hinds was assassinated by the KKK during Reconstruction), but the step-by-step timeline of events is absolutely chilling.

Yet, the most important point Guinn and the survivors persuasively make during the course of the film is that the majority of the Temple member who died on November 18, 1978 were victims of homicide, not suicide. Even those who “willing” drank the store brand powdered drink (Kool-Aid is unfairly associated with the whole ugly business) really did not have any choice in the matter, as the piles of used syringes attest.

Jones emerges as a true monster throughout the docu-series, but his own unhinged words are far more damning than any of the incidents of drug use, sexual hypocrisy, or Machiavellian manipulation related by the survivors. On the other hand, Jones’s sons Jim Jones Jr. and Stephan Jones come across as deeply humanistic figures. At a time when support for extremist ideologies, most definitely including socialism is on the rise, Terror is a timely and instructive warning of the dangers they represent. Highly recommended, Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle airs tomorrow and Sunday nights (11/17 & 11/18) on Sundance TV.