What’s this, an MSNBC documentary that doesn’t focus on pedophiles or prisoners? Granted, the cable news channel doesn’t deviate far from the salacious with this 30th anniversary look at Jonestown, the event that forever put the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” into the national lexicon. NBC News was intimately involved in the story — two of its journalists died in Guyana, before the Rev. Jim Jones and more than 900 followers engaged in a mass murder-suicide — and the relatively new MSNBC Films documentary initiative credibly illustrates Jones’ madness in appropriately unsettling detail.
Narrated by Lester Holt, the project makes extensive use of present-day interviews with People’s Temple survivors and journalists, heavily augmented by archival footage. Nothing is more chilling than taped recordings of the cult’s charismatic leader Jones, whose appealing pitch about an egalitarian society and socialist utopia degenerated into a surreal paranoid nightmare, seeking to convince temple members that Jones was a messianic figure and that they were besieged by outside forces. That included Jones’ voice constantly playing over the loudspeaker, droning warnings about unseen intruders in the brush.
Complaints of abuse at Jonestown triggered an investigative visit by Congressman Leo Ryan accompanied by several journalists, but the party was subsequently ambushed by Jones’ gunmen.
Even this long after the fact, several of the Jonestown survivors frankly come across as a bit creepy, and a closing update indicates what they have done with their lives in the 30 intervening years — as well as the loved ones lost. Nevertheless, it’s a slickly packaged feature-length doc, about a subject that remains morbidly fascinating.
As such, this represents a tentative step forward for MSNBC, which has augmented its talk-heavy lineup with documentaries that consistently exhibit a tawdry streak — recycling Chris Hansen’s “To Catch a Predator” specials (complete with fresh outtakes) in a cynical attempt to imbue cable news with the attributes of the “Friday the 13th” movies. Hey, we get the imperative to reel in those younger demos, but anybody paying attention should recognize that straight news can be plenty scary enough.