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HTF REVIEW: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
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Posted April 13 2007 - 07:48 AM
Format: Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC
Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Studio: PBS Paramount
DVD Release Date: April 10, 2007
Run Time: 90 minutes
The story of Jim Jones and Jonestown has become a punch line to a joke: we call it a cult, talk about “drinking the Kool-Aid” and marginalize its impact. This documentary takes a different path, trying to understand how these near-thousand people joined up with the charismatic Jones and ultimately took their own lives. Mixing footage of Jones and his organization at Peoples Temple with retrospective interview from surviving members and their relatives, “Jonestown” tracks the rise and fall of the titular town.
“Jonestown” is illuminating. As one of the introductory interviews claims, nobody joins a cult. They join a religious organization or partake of a group with whom they identify, or follow a person who they respect and admire. It is from this perspective that the documentary advances. Jim Jones is treated as a forward-thinking individual, who advanced an integration agenda, with various progressive, racial ideas. Jones is treated as a rounded, fascinating figure whose charisma made possible the commune that bore his name.
The documentary is even-handed, treating the religious aspect with respect, showing the commune in a positive light which, leading us to wonder what truly lead to the tragic ending that took over nine hundred lives. The structure lacks a narrator and is driven by retrospective interviews, but the variety of perspectives creates a complex and complete picture of the world according to Jim Jones, the birth and death of a cult.
Shot and mastered in high definition, the 1.85:1 transfer looks good. The interviews are gorgeous, with wonderful depth and fine detail. The old footage looks decent, and is perfectly serviceable. There is some digital combing that appears when there are fast-cuts, but the majority is well-done.
The default Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track doesn’t have much high-or-low end, but it also isn’t required by the source. The dialogue comes across clean and clear, which is all that ultimately matters. That includes the recordings of the final moments of Jonestown. Chilling. Simply chilling.
There are a few extra features included that flesh out the story of Jonestown slightly, including an interview with Stanley Nelson, the producer/director behind the creation of this documentary. His vision and presentation of this topic are phenomenal, and to hear his musings upon the topic and his inspiration is fascinating.
Considering the wealth of material presented within the documentary, it is unsurprising to find out that there are even more interviews and scenes that had to be excised for time. They are compiled on this DVD in deleted scenes, adding a lot to the proceedings. Unfortunately they are not enhanced for widescreen televisions.
The American Experience series on PBS has presented some of the most amazing histories of difficult and complex events. “Jonestown” is no exception. A deep and emotional story that pulls no punches, this documentary exposes the true sequence of events that lead to the death of nearly a thousand people. A cautionary tale about cults left unchecked, “Jonestown” is simply fascinating.