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PBS Home Video presents
Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple (2007)

"Give us our liberty, or give us our death."
- Jim Jones

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: April 09, 2007

Director: Stanley Nelson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, footage of dead bodies)
Run Time: 01h:26m:24s
Release Date: April 10, 2007
UPC: 841887052269
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In the years since November 1978 when 909 people committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced drinks in Jonestown, Guyana, I've occasionally wondered how things could have gotten to that point. The whole Jim Jones thing inevitably comes up whenever cults are discussed, and no matter how many times I hear about it or read about it, I'm continually dumbfounded at the staggering scale of what actually happened. Even the term "drinking the Kool-Aid" has entered our culture to refer to someone who is seems to be a blind follower of something that is not what it seems.

Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is part of the PBS series The American Experience, and does a remarkable job tracing the history of Jones, his burgeoning church and the horrific collapse that saw the murder of a U.S. Congressman on a desolate Guyanan runway and then, mass suicide. Nelson utilizes a collection of insightful, honest interviews from former Peoples Temple members including Jones' adopted son, all of whom help shape the puzzle piece narrative about what went on in the seemingly noble early days, right on up to those deadly final moments.

Nelson blocks the story out into four main segments, covering Jones' early days in Lynn, Indiana; the Peoples Temple original compound in Ukiah, California; the establishment of a base of operations in San Francisco; and finally the self-described "exodus" into the South American jungles of Guyana. What is truly striking is the mass of archival footage and photos that Nelson has obtained, because it not only prevents the need for the much dreaded re-enactment (none of them here), but it allows viewers to see and hear Jones himself, and even try to pinpoint the moment when the man whose ideas at first were about creating an idyllic, racially equal community seemed righteous, and how it quickly became a rambling mass of paranoid and dictatorial ideologies.

The interview subjects, even those who held spouses or children in their arms as they died in Guyana, still speak with an initially odd blend of reverence for the Peoples Temple, at least when discussing its early days. And somewhere in that grey time before Jones became a sexually domineering leader who would broadcast tapes of his own voice 24 hours a day in a Jonestown compound that seemed more prison than paradise, there is a glimmer of a man who seemed to have started out with genuinely positive intentions, drawing in people who were also disillusioned with the federal government and its perception of an unjust treatment of the populace.

By the time Congressman Leo Ryan and an NBC news crew landed in Jonestown in November 1978 to investigate rumored human rights violations at the compound, the delusions of Jones had escalated to an extremely dangerous boiling point. Nelson has NBC footage of Ryan the night before his murder and the mass suicides, speaking to a crowd of Peoples Temple members at a large outdoor party, announcing he has found no problems in Jonestown. He receives a wave of vibrant applause and cheering, and as we watch we already know that something is going to quickly trigger a great tragedy, and that no one there was aware, nor could they possibly stop the momentum.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Nelson's doc is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and consists of a combo platter of sometimes sketchy archival material and newer interview segments. As expected, the archival footage has seen better days, but the fact that it exists at all is something, and all the scratches, faded colors, etc. are hardly issues. The new interviews bits carry strong colors and deep blacks, with sharp, well-defined edges.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo, and like the video transfer, fluctuates mildly dependent on the source material. The new interviews have a pleasing, rich tonal quality, and voice clarity is never a concern. The archival material is sometimes a bit harsh or tinny, but that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Overall, the presentation doesn't offer much in the way of aural dramatics, but it delivers the content solidly, without any production-related flaws.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 11 cues and remote access
9 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: There are nine deleted scenes (34m:33s), presented in nonanamorphic widescreen. The majority of the clips appear cut simply for pacing reason, as they either expand on details already in the film or cover peripheral subjects, such as Jones' advisors or a child who became part of a bitter custody battle. The cut footage is still strong, and for me seems to just add another 30 minutes of fascinating interviews to the overall experience. For pure weirdness, however, one of the scenes covers Mr. Muggs, Jones' pet chimpanzee. Strange on so many levels.

The anamorphic widescreen Interview with Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (10m:49s) is fairly brief, but it has the director offering a capsulated summary of events as well as his approach to putting the story together, and how he originally did not intend to cover Jones as a focal point as much as he did.

The disc is cut into eleven chapters.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Stanley Nelson's doc on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple is darkly fascinating on its journey to the famously tragic end, and the wealth of archival footage enhances and magnifies the recollections from surviving ex-members who were there.

Highly recommended.


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