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So many books, documentaries and scripted projects have been dedicated to the harrowing story of what transpired in rural Guyana in 1978 that it isn’t always clear how much of SundanceTV’s Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle is meant to be new or revelatory. Certainly the 40th anniversary of the tragedy has spawned a slew of new retrospectives, some no doubt featuring similar information and similar interviews.
Having watched more than a couple of previous investigations of Jonestown, Jim Jones and Peoples Temple over the years, I’m at least prepared to call Terror in the Jungle one of the best of the genre. The interviews are candid, within the subjects’ ability to be so, and the period footage is unsettling. And once director Shan Nicholson’s four-hour series reaches the jungle terror of its title, it’s a gripping spiral into nightmare that’s hard to look away from.
AIR DATE Nov 17, 2018
Boasting Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way among its big-name producers and using executive producer Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple as a basis, Terror in the Jungle begins with a predictable in medias res opening of news coverage from 1978 and the shock and horror that greeted reports of over 900 Americans, including a California congressman, being killed or committing suicide at a religious compound in South America. From there, the two-night documentary travels back to trace Jones’ rise from small-town Indiana preacher to progressive San Francisco religious and political celebrity to dangerous and overbearing zealot and sociopath.
Nicholson, who previously directed ID’s probing docu-series Sugar Town, embraces the longform opportunity here and takes a methodical approach that doesn’t get the series to Guyana until well into its second hour and doesn’t get to the bedlam of the notorious tragedy until well into the third. That extra breathing room is necessary so that your perception of Jones isn’t just that of a sweaty, megalomaniac in face-obscuring sunglasses goading his followers into consuming Kool-Aid (which the documentary makes very clear was actually a knockoff, Flavor Aid). It’s also important that you get the voices and memories of what led the survivors to Peoples Temple in the first place, so that they aren’t just sad, brainwashed dupes.
When it comes to interview subjects, Nicholson’s concentration is on depth rather than breadth, which is to say that certain parts and perspectives in the story are quite thin and rely very heavily on Guinn to narrate or fill in gaps, especially when it comes to viewing what happened from the outside. A lone childhood friend offers only surface color and a San Francisco reporter whose skeptical and then cautionary reporting on Peoples Temple contributed to the move to Guyana adds little more. Both give the impression of being overly rehearsed in their scant remembrances. Providing more haunting immediacy is Jackie Speier, who accompanied Congressman Leo Ryan and his team to Jonestown with the most heart-wrenching of results.
It’s only a small cadre of Jonestown survivors and former Peoples Temple members represented here, but with a couple of exceptions, they each serve a clear purpose in the telling of this story. Perhaps the series’ most telling takeaway is that none of these survivors has only pure and unmuddied regrets. You have Jones’ sons Jim and Stephan, neither willing to outright defend their father, and yet both interested in pointing out how drugs warped and changed him, both eager to present glimpses of childhood innocence and enthusiasm they felt. You have people like Tim Carter explaining how Peoples Temple gave his life purpose coming out of the Vietnam War, or Leslie Wagner-Wilson tracing her involvement back to the temple’s drug rehabilitation program and how it helped her sister. The humanizing of this experience doesn’t excuse or justify anything that comes later. It just reminds you how many people found a metaphorical or even literal family in the temple. The documentary does a good job contrasting the parts of this story that are easy for the survivors to tell with the parts where they’re struggling to articulate the unspeakable.
If the pre-Guyana parts of the story are toughest to find voices to flesh out, they’re also the place Nicholson has some challenges visually representing. There’s footage of Jones’ sermons and healing ceremonies that illustrate his charisma and, in moments, the elements of his socialism-adjacent message that would have appealed especially to audiences seeking meaning in the turbulent ’60s. There just may not be quite enough of that footage, and what gets used becomes repetitious and even reused. There are no such problems once we get to Jonestown and almost every second is bracing, whether it’s something as simple and unexpected as shots from the Jonestown basketball courts or musical performances staged at the settlement, or as graphic and nearly unwatchable/unlistenable as the so-called Death Tape, with its audio of the camp’s final moments. That some of the most vital documents from Jonestown were audio-only probably explain the utterly purposeless reenactments that are scattered throughout, never adding anything of value and never quite obtrusive enough to harm the series.
Having seen this story recounted in various ways — it’s tough to beat the late Powers Boothe’s performance as Jones — the part of Terror in the Jungle that I appreciated and found most important was the effort to take a retroactive look at how Jonestown happened and what we can learn from it today, as well as the step-back reflection on the journey the survivors have had to go through to get to the point where they can now share their stories. Jonestown was an extreme example of fundamentalism run amuck, but viewing it as isolated, aberrant or unique doesn’t allow for it to serve a teachable purpose. I was relieved that after four hours, the filmmakers here tried to make some sense of things and instigate discussions more complicated than, “Wasn’t that a crazy thing that happened?”
Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle airs Saturday, Nov. 17, and Sunday, Nov. 18, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on SundanceTV.
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