Media Review: Jonestown: The Final Report (2006)

Jonestown: The Final Report (2006) available on YouTube

Jonestown: The Final Report is a fact-based documentary intended to shed light on The Peoples Temple, its formation, its infamous leader Jim Jones, and its zealous end. By presenting a visual depiction with authentic footage, first-hand accounts, and photographs of the phenomena that was Jonestown, The Final Report is able to weave a vivid tapestry that is not only informative but entertaining as well. Though there is an ostensible bias concerning the portrayal of Jones himself and the conditions of the Guyanese settlement, this documentary accomplishes its goal of offering a concise delineation of the events that led to that fateful end in November of 1978.

This documentary was produced by Towers Production in 2006, with Jonathan Towers as the executive producer. Stock footage was provided by ABC, Associated Press, California Historical Society, Corbis, Guyana Sunday Chronicle, KRON-TX, National Archives, NBC, San Francisco Examiner, the Jonestown Institute and Ukiah Daily Journal. This documentary was part of the television series “The Final Report” which is featured on the National Geographic Channel, and was narrated by David Riley.

The documentary portrayed Jim Jones with a negative bias while subtly reflecting on some more positive aspects.  The film showed both the positive and negative sides to Jones by highlighting the facts that he started the People’s Temple as a way to help others and increase the idea of equality but ultimately showing how he ended up getting lost in his control over others and abusing the power that he had by causing harm to his members, isolating them from others, and manipulating them to the point that they were too scared to leave.  The film put emphasis on how Jones was a charismatic leader, this charisma that he held was how he was able to gain so many loyal followers.  The film also recognized that Jones mental health was deteriorating as a result of paranoia and drug abuse which I think is a key factor in what ultimately happened at Jonestown so it was important that a discussion of his mental state was included.  One thing that I didn’t like about the film’s portrayal of Jim Jones was that in one instance it referred to him as a “puppet” suggesting that the inner circle had some kind of control over him and that they were just as, if not more, responsible for what happened in Jonestown.  I don’t think this specific portrayal of Jones represented his character or who he was well.  Otherwise, the film did a good job of representing him even with a negative bias.

Two instances in which readings, reports, and accounts studied throughout the semester specifically conflicted with The Final Report are the association of Christianity with the dogmas taught by Jones and the exclusion of the Concerned Relative’s role from the narrative painted. Instead of crediting the Concerned Relatives for bringing attention to the horrors of Jonestown, the documentary only acknowledges “defectors” for providing their first-hand experiences of, “beatings, coerced sex, and even death.” By excluding the concerted efforts of the former members and left behind families of people still within the settlement who comprised the group known as the Concerned Relatives, this documentary loses an integral element of the Jonestown saga that is vital to a true comprehension of the chain of events leading to the final White Night. The Final Report also goes out of its way to associate The Peoples Temple’s beliefs with tenants of Christianity, but the readings of Reiterman and Moore postulate that Jones often taught against institutionalized religion and denied many integral tenants of the Bible. This affiliation unjustly suggests Christianity as an intrinsic precursor to Jim Jones following, when in actuality this is not the case.

This film manages to shrug off many preconceptions that may have arisen in scholarly speculation shortly after the murder-suicide. At the same time, it does not focus a great deal on some valuable perspectives that have been presented by Jonestown scholars. Rutgers University religion professor Henry Bowden suggested that the members of the Peoples Temple idolized Jones, which led to their willingness to end their lives. This film shows that there were numerous reasons behind every person’s decision to join the Peoples Temple and that it cannot be simplified to an infatuation with Jones himself. This film also does not touch much upon the failure of black churches, which religious scholar Rev. Archie Smith believed to be an important factor in Jonestown’s success. Nor does it focus much on the theology of the Temple, which religious studies scholar David Chidester focused a great deal on. This film does give a bit of weight to the works of those like Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs, who in their book Raven more or less highlight the overall instability of Jones. H.D. Motyl, a media scholar who was assigned to produce and write The Final Report, said that working on the film changed his preconceptions about Jonestown. He discovered just how minimal religion played in everyday lives of the members, and saw Jonestown as more political, more socialist, than religious. Media exposure had led him to believe Jonestown was about nothing more than religious fanaticism, but this project allowed him to understand the varied motivations behind the actions of Jones and Temple members. He also felt this film explored that, while Jones may be ultimately responsible for the tragedy, he is not entirely responsible, as he had many who assisted him. Critical and scholarly reception has ultimately shown that this film examines a multitude of viewpoints, and isn’t afraid of challenging established positions on the subject.

The Final Report Documentary about the Jonestown tragedy had a very clear position on what happened on November 18, 1978; a cult committed a murder-suicide. This event is classified as a murder due to the children and elderly that were either forced to drink the poison or injected with it by adults. Children and the elderly don’t choose to die in such a manner. They were murdered. The suicide aspect comes in with the rest of the adults in Jonestown. Despite the fact that they had been groomed and coerced throughout their entire time in Jonestown to believe that revolutionary suicide was their only escape, Jonestown residents willingly laid down their lives not only for the cause but Jones himself. The deaths adults who died in Jonestown were so willing due to their isolation and fear of what would happen if they didn’t die. Jones told them that they would be ambushed and the US government would torture their children. They had to do it. The Final Report perspective believes that while Jones made the ultimate call to commit the final act, his inner circle were the ones who did the leg work to get the cyanide and figure out a strong enough mixture to kill everyone. Much like Jones, the inner circle used intimidation and lies to encourage everyone to ‘step over quietly’ by drinking the potion. The ultimate rationale for revolutionary suicide wasn’t for the cause, but for Jones and his leaders to avoid punishment for the hell that they were inflicting on residents. In stepping over all of Jonestown became the ultimate martyrs.