Although I’d quibble with some muddying of the facts, this film presents an excellent overview of the events leading up to the Jonestown tragedy of 1978. The film starts with Jones as a child involved in preaching the gospel to anyone who will listen. .. The more disturbing aspects of Jones’ childhood (including his torture and killing of small animals) are left unexplored. However, as the film progresses, we do get more of an idea of the sickness of the Reverend Jim Jones. His drug use, seduction of both male and female parishioners, staged “healings,” questionable financial dealings, and vicious public castigation of Temple Members are all given due screen time.
The cast is unbelievable for a TV movie — Powers Boothe riveting as Jones, Veronica Cartwright excellent as his wife Marceline, as well as James Earl Jones, Colleen Dewhurst, Diane Ladd, Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, LeVar Burton, Meg Foster, Randy Quaid, Brenda Vaccaro, and many others.
Despite the film’s grainy picture quality, the production values are admirably high as well — the recreation of Jonestown is frighteningly eerie, and the film features a great score by the always excellent Elmer Bernstein.
Some may not like the compression of facts and events. Names are changed and characters are switched around. For instance, Tim and Grace Stoen (they are given different names in the film) were not shot at the airstrip in Port Kaituma, nor did Congressman Ryan spend the night at the Jonestown compound. There are also several key players who seem to be missing in the film: Deborah and Larry Layton, and Caroline and Annie Moore, for instance.
However, the final suicide scene is absolutely harrowing. The dialogue is taken from the actual tape recording made at the suicide, and the director wisely chose to shoot the scene without any music. This gives it the feel of a documentary, and it is easily worth watching the entire movie just for this finale. I cannot imagine anyone being able to watch this scene without tears in their eyes.
Despite its rather free treatment of the facts surrounding the demise of the Peoples Temple, this film contains excellent performances and should be seen by anyone with an interest in this particular tragedy or cults in general.