When Jim Jones was operating The Peoples Temple out of San Francisco in the mid-'70s, he once distributed cups of punch to his whole congregation, and once they'd swallowed, he informed them that the punch had been poisoned. When they started to freak out, he admitted it was actually just punch, and that he was only testing their faith. That's one of the many telling Jones anecdotes that director Stanley Nelson digs up for Jonestown: The Life And Death Of Peoples Temple, a documentary that goes behind the 1978 mass suicide of Jones' disciples in Guyana and tries to explain how any person—let alone 900 people—could volunteer to kill themselves just because a preacher told them to. The key to understanding is best summed up by one of Nelson's interviewees, who says, "Nobody joins a cult."
In Jones' case, the road to cultdom began benignly in Indiana, where he preached a controversial gospel of equality. When Jones moved to California in 1965, he led a congregation that was about 75 percent black. He also ran collectivist farms, encouraged kids to get off drugs, and became a power player in San Francisco politics. For Jonestown, Nelson obtained films of Jones' highly dramatic church services, with their staged healings and self-help dogma. Jones was so easy to believe that even when he started bringing "disobedient" church members up to the altar to be physically abused in front of everyone—and sometimes sexually abused in private—his people assumed it was for their own good.
Nelson shows how Jones' followers made the transition from people of good will to accidental fanatics, with the help of several ex-members who survived Guyana, including Jones' adopted black son, who talks about how much his dad loved Star Trek. But he misses a chance to connect the Peoples Church to the larger "Jesus freaks" and apocalyptic leftist movements, and he fails to really explain Jones except in the abstract, as a well-meaning man corrupted by demagoguery. Still, while Jonestown lacks the power of revelation, it's a first-rate piece of journalism, as fascinating and thorough as any magazine article. The film ends with a lengthy explication of the Guyana tragedy, supported by absolutely jaw-dropping footage of Jones confronting an investigative reporter mere hours before the citizens of Jonestown would assassinate California congressman Leo Ryan, then take their own lives. While Jones shows the camera crews around the compound, he nonchalantly shows off the supply trunks, noting, "Here we have rice… black-eyed peas… Kool-aid."