The Video Vacuum (thevideovacuum) wrote,
The Video Vacuum
thevideovacuum

GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES (1980) *** ½

Jim Jones is a fascinating figure; at least to me anyway. I mean what kind of a guy can call himself a “man of God” and then fleece his flock of all their worldly possessions, whisk them off to the middle of nowhere, and then make theme drink a batch of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid? The Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones is an insightful, horrifying, and riveting look at the man behind the monster.

The film was a two part CBS mini-series. The first half features Jim Jones (Powers Boothe) in his commune in Guyana flashing back to his early days. As a child, he presides over pet funerals and says grace for a really long time. As a young man, he gets married and lands a gig presiding over a failing church. Jones integrates the church to guarantee more members, which causes controversy in the small town. He gets fired and makes his own church, and amasses a loyal flock. Soon, Jones resorts to scamming his churchgoers and uses bullying and eventually brainwashing tactics to keep them in line.

The second part is less effective, especially when it’s dealing with the plight of Jones’ followers. Randy Quaid and Meg Foster play high-ranking members in the cult who turn on Jones and try to get their son out of Guyana. And LeVar Burton is a cult member who is beaten for falling asleep during a sermon. But the tension quickly heats up once a Congressman (Ned Beatty) goes to Jonestown to investigate, which ultimately sets the table for the mass suicide.

I liked the first half better because we see how Jones becomes a monster. He starts out with good intentions as we see him integrating churches and movie theaters. He might’ve even been a civil rights leader if he hadn’t gone crazy. They also do a good job at showing Jones’ hypocrisy. In one scene he openly invites gays into his church. (We also see him engaged in homosexual affairs.) But later on, Jones casts out a member for allegedly being gay just so he could steal his wife away. I will say the ending of the second part that dramatizes the mass suicide is pretty strong stuff. Forget the fact that this is a Made for TV movie; this is a really potent scene.

Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones almost has the feeling of a ‘70s disaster movie. It’s got an all-star line-up facing an unavoidable tragedy where you know they’re gonna die. And like most disaster movies, it’s too long and gets bogged down in sections. Honestly, it probably could’ve been just a Movie of the Week. As a two-parter, there’s a bit too much filler.

But I’ve got to give director William A. (Get Christy Love) Graham credit for the look of the film. The muddy, scratched, and jumpy print gives the flick a documentary feel, which makes the final scenes even more effective. And the depiction of drug use and homosexuality is pretty shocking (for the time) for a network TV movie.

The real reason Guyana Tragedy works is Powers Boothe’s performance. He’s electrifying in this. He plays Jones as almost a rock star. Boothe is particularly suave in the scenes where he beds his congregation (both men and women). Boothe is so charismatic that you never question why anyone would drink the Kool-Aid.

Screenwriter Ernest Tidyman also wrote Shaft and The French Connection.

AKA: The Mad Messiah.

Tags: drama, g, tv
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