Follow TV Tropes


Film / Jonestown

Go To
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a 2006 documentary by Stanley Nelson, which aired in 2007 on PBS' American Experience. It charts the story of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple from their noble beginning in The '50s, to their controversial history in San Francisco in most of The '70s, to the notorious mass suicide at their Guyana compound on November 18, 1978. The film lacks any narration, instead allowing the story to be told by former Temple members themselves and archive footage of Jones.

The film is noted for being much more respectful about the event than other TV documentaries, some of which have tried to replay the story from a more sensationalistic angle. Jonestown takes a more subdued route and treats the carnage dead seriously. It received the Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.


  • Affably Evil: Jones' early Temple films show him enthusiastically describing the positive atmosphere and social safety nets the Temple affords to its members. He was also heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, which won him significant support from the black community and liberal activists.
  • Alliterative Name: Jim Jones.
  • Answers to the Name of God: Here's his favored sales pitch, meant to entice newcomers to his flock, though in hindsight we know what it really means.
    "If you see me as your friend, I'll be your friend. If you see me as your father, I'll be your father... If you see me as your savior, I'll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I'll be your God."
  • Anyone Can Die: Jones' victims included a congressman, a news team from NBC, and over 900 of his own followers.
  • Apocalypse Cult: Jones kept his church under control with fears of apocalypse. In The '60s, he convinced his followers to move with him to the Redwood Valley, which a magazine article said could withstand fallout from a nuclear war. In Jonestown, he pumped people with made-up stories about America persecuting its racial minorities. When Ryan arrived, many were fearful that their children would be sent to concentration camps, which led some to choose suicide.
  • Apocalyptic Log:
    • Jones' "death tape", in which he tells his followers that the Temple has failed and that their only course of action left is "revolutionary suicide".
      "If we can't live in peace, we can die in peace."
    • Shortly before the "revolutionary suicide" begins, we see grainy footage of the cultists firing at Congressman Ryan and his delegation at the Port Kaituma airstrip before it fades to static as the cameraman is shot.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Jones' rationalization for the unfolding massacre.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Once Congress got a whiff of what was going on, Jones figured the party was over, so he poisoned all of his prisoners to send a message to the government.
  • The Caligula: As Jones' mental health deteriorated and his excesses increased, so did Jonestown's standard of living and the treatment of its denizens.
  • Camera Abuse: NBC cameraman Bob Brown was among those killed in the airstrip shooting. Footage from his camera, which had fallen to the ground, shows the Temple shooters climbing out of the dump truck and shooting at Ryan's delegation.
  • Canned Orders over Loudspeaker: Jones did this a lot while in Jonestown.
  • Captain Ersatz: In-Universe. Although the tragedy at Jonestown gave the English language the phrase "Drinking the Kool-Aid", the poisoned punch at Jonestown was not Kool-Aid but a knockoff brand called Flavor-Aid.
  • Crapsaccharine World: Jonestown was depicted as a paradise in Temple films and enticed many followers to leave for Guyana permanently. Once they arrived, they were never allowed to leave, were forced to live and work in spartan conditions while Jones lived in comparable luxury, and were routinely tormented by Jones and his drug-addled madness. note 
  • Creepy Child: According to Jones' friends in Indiana.
  • Corrupt Church: Jones can be heard saying "blasphemous" things about God, Heaven, and the Bible. Justified in that the Temple evolved into more of a Marxist political organization than a religious one as he became more power-hungry and paranoid. Jones had always used religion for his own personal ends and didn't really hesitate to discard the church's purported Pentecostalism for Marxist ideology. At some point, it seems he started to believe the lies he'd told.
  • Cult: One of the most notorious and enduring examples in history.
  • Dark Messiah: Jones' life ambition was to die a martyr. To that end, he spent years mixing with the social potpourri of San Francisco, cultivating a church of impressionable people who believed the world was on the brink on nuclear annihilation.
  • Death of a Child:
    • Tim Carter, one of the few Temple members to leave Jonestown alive on the day of the massacre, recalls watching his son die from cyanide poisoning.
    • Carter's story comes at the same time we hear the actual audio recording of the beginning of the massacre, in which children were forced to take the poisoned punch first. Young kids can be heard screaming in the background while Jones tells his followers to keep going.
  • Death Seeker: Jones not only applied this trope to himself, but to everyone and everything around him. The film suggests that Jones had always sought death; as a kid, he held funerals for (and allegedly killed) stray animals. Several incidents are described which suggest that Jones had planned a mass suicide years before the move to Guyana.
  • Dirty Commies: Jim Jones' movement was a weird combination of religious fervor and utopian socialism. By the time of the mass suicide, Jonestown had the worst aspects of a socialist society; beatings, torture, and a population subjected to the mad whims of an absolute ruler.
  • Doomed Expedition: Leo Ryan's fact-finding mission to Jonestown. Jones' death squad rolled up and shot Ryan and his delegation as they were boarding the plane. Back at the compound, Jones claimed no involvement in the attack, but "prophesied" the Congressman's death from a stray shot by his guards (he was actually shot more than 20 times). As Jones' self-discipline later started to slip, he admitted to ordering Ryan's murder.
  • Dramatic Irony: Jones denouncing euthanasia from the pulpit. "Who's going to decide who and when a person is going to die? We must never allow that!"
  • Drinking the Kool-Aid: The massacre was the Trope Codifier, though not necessarily the Trope Maker (what they actually drank was a similar product called Flavor Aid).
  • Driven to Suicide: For almost the entire Jonestown settlement, on an enormous scale. Although some of the survivors would call it a mass murder instead of a mass suicide, since they were tricked or forced into doing it. note  Jones is widely considered to be the only person who really committed suicide, as he shot himself in the head rather than drink the poison like his followers.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The reaction of the few survivors, who are clearly still haunted by the events they describe in their interviews. (The presence of Jones' gun-wielding goons ensured that hardly anyone survived - of the over 900 people in Jonestown on that fateful day, only four managed to escape.)
  • Eye Beams: Jones claimed that this was the reason for his Sinister Shades.
  • Faking the Dead: Jackie Speier tried to do this during the airstrip shooting. This didn't stop one of the Temple shooters from hitting her point-blank.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Heard at the start of the movie, then later right before the punch is brought out.
  • A God Am I: As time went on Jones started to view himself as an inerrant godlike figure, and many of his followers agreed (while other more pragmatic followers overlooked these claims because they felt the cause was the important thing).
  • The Hedonist: Temple members, both male and female, recall sleeping with or being sexually assaulted by Jones, who was rarely sober.
  • Heroic BSoD: Some Temple survivors recall experiencing these while witnessing the carnage unfold around them.
  • The Horseshoe Effect: Jones' vision of the future was a socialist paradise, but Jonestown had many attributes of facsism: extreme surveillance of the residents, forced labor with little pay, and isolation from the outside world.
  • I Will Find You: The relatives of the Temple members trapped in Jonestown.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Jones was ready to have Temple members shot and poisoned before allowing them to leave.
  • Interfaith Smoothie: Despite starting out as a Pentecostal pastor, Jones became increasingly critical of Christianity as time went on and began preaching a concept he called "apostolic socialism". Then he quit bothering with that and flat-out declared himself God. The general thrust throughout this evolution was that his was the only road to an egalitarian paradise.
  • Kubrick Stare: Hue Fortson describes an incident where a female member who expressed romantic interest in Jones was stripped naked and denigrated in front of the entire Temple. Fortson noticed Jones giving her this over his sunglasses while sporting a Slasher Smile.
  • Let No Crisis Go to Waste: Part of Jones' rants over the Jonestown speaker system were claims that America had gone full fascist and were sending all of their minorities to concentration camps.
  • Made a Slave: Jonestown inhabitants were made to work at almost all hours of the day, had to live in cramped rooms and huts, and were not permitted to leave the settlement except in (extremely) rare circumstances.
  • Manly Tears: The male Temple survivors, especially Tim Carter.
  • Mask of Sanity: One follower remembers an incident in the San Francisco Temple where Jones asked everyone to gather and drink from a vat of punch, before telling them that they just drank poison and were about to die. Then he tells everyone that there was no poison and that they have just taken a test of loyalty. It makes you wonder how long Jones planned the mass poisoning in advance.
  • Murder by Suicide: A large-scale example. Jones manipulated his followers into being largely willing to kill themselves for him, with his goons shooting anyone who refused, all in order to spite the people coming to break up Jonestown and potentially save its denizens.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: Jones' sermons, being geared toward post-Civil Rights Movement black audiences, were full of this. While initially justified, they soon evolved into obsessive anti-government paranoia.
  • Offing the Offspring:
    • A massive example. Jonestown's children were the first to be given the cyanide-laced punch. Their parents led them to the vat, where they were either forcibly injected or had the poison squirted into their mouths.
    • Tim Carter walked in on his wife as she was squirting a poisonous syringe into their baby son's mouth, and then took the poison herself. He graphically describes the poison's effects on the baby.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: The Peoples Temple and how it was run, with a message of social tolerance undermined by its being incredibly authoritarian leader. Jonestown was functionally a mini-totalitarian state, complete with armed guards, propaganda about how evil the outside world is, and brutal punishments for dissent.
  • Photo Op with the Dog: Horrible as Jones was, he was a hero among impoverished blacks and white liberals for championing civil rights and often providing legal services and nursing homes for his followers.
  • Plot Armor: Pointedly averted. Congressman Leo Ryan, likely out of naivete, seemed to think he had this when he told Vernon Gosney, a Temple defector, that he had "the congressional shield of protection around you". Gosney looked at Ryan as if he were "totally insane". Both Gosney and Ryan were shot at the airfield, the latter fatally.
  • Precision F-Strike:
  • Pretty Fly for a White Guy: A very dark example. It is noted that Jones' early sermons had a lot in common with African-American churches, which made him popular with that demographic at a time when segregation was the norm. It is also theorized that Jones may have related with the black community through his own ostracization from society.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: One of the greatest Real Life examples out there. Jones started as a weird but friendly child that grew into a young man who believed in racial equality and socialism as a way to improve other people's lives. He then decided that The End Justifies The Means, then got Drunk with Power, and then things got worse. Much worse.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Due to his excessive drug abuse, Jim Jones' eyes were noticeably bloodshot pretty much all the time (which is the reason he wore his trademark Sinister Shades)
  • Religion of Evil: While it didn't start out this way, Jim Jones' cause degenerated from egalitarianism to blind worship of its increasingly maddened leader.
  • Scenery Gorn: Jonestown post-punch.
  • Secret Test of Character:
    • How Jones characterized the trial runs for the massacre, where he'd gather his followers, convince them they were under attack, and have them pledge one-by-one that they were willing to die for the cause (and at least twice Jones actually gave them what he said was poison). Which is why it took a while for everyone to realize that the final meeting was the real thing.
    • He'd also announce loyalty tests where Fake Defectors would ask their friends to help escape Jonestown, and they would be required to denounce them. Of course, this also discouraged genuine defectors from seeking help from family and friends.
  • Sinister Minister: Jones psychologically and sexually abused his followers even before he coerced them into moving to a remote settlement in a strange country that he ran as his own psychotic fiefdom. The poisonings were merely the logical conclusion to his escalating behavior.
  • Sinister Shades: His trademark look note .
  • The Sociopath: By the time of Ryan's visit, Jones was a controlling, egotistical, abusive, promiscuous madman. He soon ordered the murder of Ryan, then his followers to kill their children and commit suicide.
  • Stepford Smiler: Temple members in archival footage who expound how great it is living in Jonestown.
  • A Storm Is Coming: Played eerily straight in Real Life. On the day of the massacre, hours before the vat was brought out, a severe thunderstorm poured torrential rain on the settlement. Survivor Tim Carter remarks that it was "as if evil itself had blown into Jonestown".
  • Taking You with Me: What Jones' "revolutionary suicide" really was.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: The film hints that there was something seriously wrong with Jones as far back as his childhood.
  • Think of the Children!: Christine Miller objects to the mass suicide.
    Christine: I look at all the babies and I think they deserve to live.
    Jones: I agree, but what's more they deserve peace.
  • Truth in Television: Your children (and all of your family and friends) can be compelled to let themselves die based on the word of someone who is supposed to be their spiritual leader.
  • Uncanny Village: Jonestown, which was purportedly built as a left-wing utopia but almost immediately evolved into a dystopia.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Before Guyana, Jones had a popular following among liberals and radical leftists in the United States, owing to the political and social activities of the Peoples Temple. In particular, Jones managed to forge links with San Francisco politicians George Moscone, Harvey Milk, and Willie Brown, as well as Vice President Walter Mondale and First Lady Rosalyn Carter.
  • Villain Protagonist: Jones starts out very much a protagonist, but becomes more of a villain as his power and paranoia grow. He becomes a full-blown monster by the time the Temple settles in Guyana. note 
  • Villainous Breakdown: The whole massacre can be seen as this. In news footage, Jones becomes increasingly anxious as more and more Temple members choose to defect to Ryan's delegation. Knowing his paranoid nature, we are not surprised when he takes the extreme measures of having Ryan assassinated and organizing the mass death of his group.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Jones demanded that the poison be given first to the Temple's children.