Sample Movie Review: The Life and Death of People’s Temple (Johnstown)

The Life and Death of People’s Temple

Johnstown: The Life and Death of the People’s Temple is a thriller film produced in 2006 by Stanley Nelson and presents a well written and documented events of a cultic religion commonly referred to as the ‘People’s Temple.’ The cult was led by Jim Jones (Kelly 96). Jim Jones has been described as a charismatic leader who influenced his followers to move to a place known as Johnstown in the American jungle. He had moved to this region due to fear of media exposure since the media had begun digging into the activities of the religion after numerous complaints from those who had abandoned the cult (Thomson 23).

Jones convinced an estimated 1000 followers including over 300 children to commit suicide so as to die a ‘dignified death’ which according to him was, ‘’a crossing line’’ through drinking of poison (Kelly 100). The main contribution to the film is obtained from first hand information collected through interviews from the former members of the religion, who managed to survive the poison on 18th November 178 when they were to drink it. The film was released during the Tribeca Film Festival in 1978 whereby it won its first award after receiving other awards for its great presentations aired mainly broadcast on national TV on a program called ‘’America Experience’’ where its popularity significantly grew (Thomson 34).

Analyzing the Johnstown Tragedy

The activities of the People’s Temp[le can be traced back to 1955 when its leader, Jim Jones a former member and preacher of a Pentecostal Church began preparing unique sermons that attracted masses, thereby culminating into his widespread popularity (Kelly 105). This was mainly agitated by the great favors and generosity that he portrayed on his followers si9nce he offered them food and other basic needs. In his efforts to convince the followers that his intentions were genuine and noble, he was able to attract a huge crowd who were greatly impressed by the way he treated them, thus, they followed him in every step (Thomson 42).

The existence of cults in the 1970s is clearly brought out in the film when it gets to peak. It was during this time that several unfavorable events surfaced that negatively impacted Americans (Kelly 113). It is important to note that during this time, America was at war with Vietnam and the people with not satisfied with the activities of the government, therefore were direly in need of other means of solving problems in order to enhance social equality and justice. The peace crusaders during this time preached ills of the government and this culminated into mistrust of the government by its people who were experiencing the consequences of the war and needed peace.

The People’s Temple promised peace that many citizens seriously required, thereby motivating many to join the religion voluntarily. Social inequality was quite significant since many people lived without healthcare, proper housing and food, thereby intensifying the level of concern among certain groups of the American population especially the African-Americans and other minority groups in the United States (Thomson 47).

In the film, the people are willing to accept any avenue that would lead them to hope by offering the required solutions to their problems. Under the leadership of Jim Jones, the People’s Temple was able to provide free healthcare to the people especially when it opened up clinics with the help of various donors including the health clinic in the Bay area (Kelly 117). This was also offered together with shelter for the homeless and food to the needy. Through the People’s Temple, Jones was able to win the hearts of many who now viewed the movement as a genuine humanitarian institution pursuing a noble course.


It is also evident from the film that there was persistent discrimination in employment against minority groups, which made them feel irrelevant in society since they were ignored by the government (Thomson 52). Although it is not easy to individually file suit for one to be heard by the government, Jones is able to address the matter since he handles all his followers collectively thereby creating great success since many of them are able to get employment opportunities without any humiliation. The emergence of many political outfits influenced the society in the 1970sv and many citizens developed affiliations with quite a number of these groups including even those for women liberation, gay liberation and other spiritualistic movements (Kelly 120).

Although these groups caused lots of confusion since many people were unable to determine the ones that presented the best principles and ideologies, the followers of the People’s Temple remained intact since their leader had portrayed himself as trustworthy and even convinced them that his teachings were the best that they required. Jim Jones devised various strategies to make sure that his followers remained faithful to his ideas without being swayed when they moved to Johnstown. There are also several people including the elderly, minority groups and those recovering from the impacts of drug abuse especially the young  and middle class Americans who were direly in need of becoming ‘greater than themselves’ (Thomson 59). This enabled Jones to influence them through his charismatic and persuasive skills, which made sure that they not only trust him but also convert to his cultic religion.

There is adequate evidence that Jim Jones is a leader with a lot of persuasive skills and charisma, and ability to using power of speech and ideologies in convincing his followers to accept any information that he would pass on to them since they had trust in him. The mass suicide occurs when Jones’ guards kills the Congressman, Leo Ryan, who had travelled to Johnstown to carry out investigations on the movement (Kelly 122). This came after many of the converts of the People’s Temple denounced the religion and decided that they would accompany Leo back to the city in order to get back to their older ways of life.

When Jones finds out that the Congressman has been murdered, he realizes that it is only a matter of time before thorough investigations into the disappearance would begin (Thomson 61). In the knowledge that he has full responsibility for the death, he calls a meeting where he convinces his followers that their residence is about to be attacked by Guyana’s army and American mercenaries. It is from this that he convinces them about the importance of having a ‘dignified death’ through taking poison instead of being slain. Therefore, adults and children are served a highly concentrated poison which results into more than 900 deaths (Kelly 125).

The impact of the significant social and political inequalities of the 1970s led to the emergence of various religious trends aimed at offering spiritual replenishment as a means of addressing the various problems that the people experienced. While many had already given up on government institutions with regard to their ability in addressing the prevalent social and political problems, religious organizations which consisted of the People’s Temple proved to offer an alternative solution that could help in fading the memory and the impacts of the war.

The conflict had left many stressed out, angered and very bitter especially as a result of the injustices that significantly affected their overall progress (Thomson 67). In response to the great desperation that people experienced in efforts to acquire an alternative solution, various religious groups were established, and these helped in addressing these problems in various ways based on the views of their leaders, thereby taking advantage of the desperate population. There is significant similarity between the People’s Temple and the religious movements that were active in the 1970s, since they portrayed ideal examples of leaders who misled and massacred their followers as a means of fulfilling their personal ambitions.


Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple film provides a vivid picture of the tragedy that occurred in the 1970s, which reveals how selfish religious groups can mislead and even destroy its faithful. It shoes a period of great turmoil resulting from the need to acquire lasting solutions to the various problems people faced in their day-to-day lives. Even though the people wanted solutions to the severe problems that included divorce cases, impacts of war, discrimination in employment and violence, the film shows the tragic end that resulted into the loss of many lives of faithful followers betrayed by the hypocritical leader who acted brutally and inhumanly.