Cult Shock: Jim Jones leads the masses in Jonestown.

The ghost of Jim Jones must be tired—nearly 30 years after the murderous shepherd convinced his flock to drink killer Kool-Aid, we’re still exorcising him. The tragic events of Nov. 18, 1978, have been considered and reconsidered in numerous books, congressional investigations, and a pair of television movies, but the new documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple scrutinizes them yet again, with mixed results. The gothic ABCs of this twisted American epic are familiar: preacher overcomes tough Indiana childhood to found innovative, integrated, Christian socialist cult; preacher moves church to San Francisco and becomes a political power broker; preacher relocates to Guyana when sex and tax evasion scandals erupt, orders the shooting of a visiting Congressman, and pulls off the biggest pre-9/11 mass murder-suicide in modern history. But the film glosses over Jones’ unique spin on the Pentecostal medicine show, the Peoples Temple’s unusual place in the post-hippie political left, and numerous conspiracy theories that turn the sunglassed snake-oil salesman into a CIA patsy, and it reduces the massacre to mere spectacle. At 85 minutes, the film is more than a sensationalist cult exposé, but director Stanley Nelson lacks the courage to explore race relations within the Temple or to contextualize its unthinkable breakdown within the ideological fallout of the ’60s. And when Jonestown gets into psychological complexities, it misses the mark. Nelson briefly considers Jones’ aberrant sexual behavior and status as a self-hating homosexual—a male survivor recounts Jones’ offer to “fuck [him] in the ass,” and Deborah Layton, who authored a Jonestown tell-all, describes a brutal rape—but their suffering doesn’t illuminate the motivations of a man who fancied himself a living God or help explain why his fanaticism appealed to so many for so long. If Jonestown doesn’t elucidate the evolution of the vicious groupthink practiced by the Peoples Temple, documentation of the massacre—some of it never seen before—makes for idiot-proof filmmaking. Featuring footage of the assassination of Rep. Leo Ryan and audio of the Reverend’s final sermon, Jonestown’s Guyanese apocalypse is as real and raw as ever. The world has seen much misery since 900-plus Temple members drank their hemlock, but if there’s a future where listening to a man convince parents to poison their children and then themselves doesn’t grab the voyeur in each of us, we’re not there yet.