Two Movies Provide Two Chilling Lessons

The buzz this past week among movie critics was about United 93, a gut-wrenching film about the courage and heroism of the passengers and crew of the one hijacked plane that didn’t hit its intended target on Sept. 11, 2001.

That’s as it should be.

The cast is an eerie mix of little-known actors and real people I’d like to know playing themselves. The movie has the feel of an episode of You Are There, the 1950s TV series hosted by legendary newsman Walter Cronkite that made viewers think history was occurring as they looked on.

United 93 is great filmmaking — a re-enactment of a gruesome event in which all 33 passengers, seven crewmembers and the four terrorists who seized control of that plane died. Their end came as the passengers and crew tried to regain control of the aircraft, a heroic effort that prevented a greater tragedy — an attack on Washington, D.C.Everyone who wants to make sure something like this never happens again should see this movie.

They should also watch Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, premiering this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Nelson’s chilling documentary is about a homegrown tragedy — one that took the lives of more than 900 people in the jungle of Guyana. It is also the story of terrorism of another kind: a religious cult.

Jones was a white minister who created the mostly black Peoples Temple church during the turbulent days of the civil rights movement. He was a religious Pied Piper who crisscrossed this country in buses recruiting followers. He was a spiritual huckster who preyed upon those who trusted him. And he was a sexual predator who had his way with some of the men and women who put their faith in him.

For many years, Jones was cloaked in respectability. He helped elect George Moscone mayor of San Francisco in 1975. For a time, he served on the city’s housing authority commission and was praised by many California politicians and activists. But eventually, as the hoax of his religion became known, Jones moved himself and his congregation to a swath of jungle in the South American nation of Guyana. Jonestown, as he called it, was supposed to be an escape from their persecution. What it turned out to be was a hell on earth.

When Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., went to Jonestown in November 1978 to investigate conditions there, Jones snapped. He sent gunmen to an airstrip to assassinate the congressman and four others as they attempted to leave with cult members whom Ryan had encouraged to quit the Peoples Temple.

While the story of what happened in United 93 is largely arecreation of what happened on that jet based on what could be gleaned from the cellphone calls that people on the aircraft made to loved ones, Nelson’s movie is even more chilling. That’s because he uses actual footage and recorded voices of Peoples Temple members, right up to the moment when Jones urges his followers to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

“Die with respect. Die with a degree of dignity. Don’t lay down with tears and agony,” Jones can be heard urging his followers from an audio recording shortly before he shot himself in the head.

The video of Peoples Temple members singing and dancing on the night of Nov. 17, 1978, and the still pictures of their bodies clustered about the meeting hall after their deaths the next day, is aneerie real-life look at this awful event that is thought to be the largest mass suicide in modern times.

United 93 is the story of the terror brought to this country by foreigners. Nelson’s movie is the story of the festering terror of a domestic religious fanatic that went unchallenged for too long.

There’s an important lesson for us to learn from both.

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May 2, 2006
DeWayne Wickham

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday May 2, 2006.
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