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‘Witness to Jonestown’ is a chilling look at a deadly cult

Jim Jones presented himself to his Peoples Temple followers as a messiah.

Privately, he knew he was a fraud, which means he either fought an inner battle with some vestige of his better nature or congratulated himself for pulling off the messiah scam.

Either way, when he led some 900 Peoples Temple followers to their death in Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978, he forfeited his claim even to being a hustler and became simply a mass murderer.

Deranged, maybe. Cowardly, for sure. Like many of his fellow killers, he killed himself to avoid facing what he had done.

“Witness to Jonestown” uses the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre to revisit the story. It’s a compelling documentary, using extensive interviews with Jonestown survivors to build a portrait of an increasingly paranoid Jones pulling in the walls of his own creation so far that eventually everyone was squeezed to death.

In this reconstruction, the alleged mass suicide was not really suicide at all, at least in the classic sense of people choosing to take their lives.

After isolating his followers in the South American jungle, Jones pounded them for months with the increasingly urgent warning that the U.S. government was going to get them and treat them “worse than the Jews were treated during the Holocaust.”

When Peoples Temple members killed Congressman Leo Ryan, who had flown to Guyana to see what was going on, Jones whipped the compound into a frenzy, declared death was the only way out and used armed gunmen to enforce the order to drink poison.

It still sounds insane. But when the survivors explain why they joined Jones in the first place, and how they were alternately stroked and manipulated as time went by, dots start to connect.

Viewers fascinated by the Jonestown story shouldn’t expect this special to provide any startling new information or insight. Jones’ story, including his political influence in San Francisco, has been well-documented before, as recently as last year’s docudrama “Jonestown: Paradise Lost.”

Most of the survivors have also told their stories before.

What “Jonestown Revisited” does well is put the story together in one place, with the stamp of solid news reporting.

MSNBC says it feels a special kinship to the story because three NBC newsmen were killed along with Ryan. Each step toward trying to explain the “how” and “why” pays tribute to what they were doing that day – even if it only proves that sometimes the madness can’t be stopped.

November 10, 2008 - Posted by | News | , , , ,

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