DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Sunday marks 40 years since the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in which cult leader Jim Jones convinced 900 followers to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced punch. Our guest, journalist Jeff Guinn, has written a book about Jones, the itinerant preacher, faith healer, civil rights activist, communist, socialist cult leader who attracted thousands of followers in what he called the Peoples Temple.
Guinn says Jones exhibitied the classic traits of a demagogue. Guinn's book, "The Road To Jonestown" is now out in paperback. Jonestown was the name of the mission Jones set up in the mid-'70s in the jungles of Guyana, where he led nearly a thousand of his followers fleeing from what he said where the imminent threats of American martial law, concentration camps and nuclear war. The isolation of Jonestown also gave him more control over his followers. More than 900 people died in that mass murder-suicide, 300 of them children.
Terry Gross spoke with Jeff Guinn last year. In a couple of minutes, we'll hear an excerpt of an audio recording made as Jones urged his followers to end their lives, which some listeners may find difficult to listen to. Jeff Guinn's previous book is the bestseller "Manson: The Life And Times Of Charles Manson."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Jeff Guinn, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm not going to assume that people know much about the Peoples Temple or Jim Jones, so can you just give us a brief overview of what this cult was? And I think it's fair to describe it as a cult.
JEFF GUINN: Jim Jones originally organized Peoples Temple as a storefront church in Indianapolis in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It became one of the first major mixed-race churches in that part of the country. And Jones was instrumental in integrating Indianapolis, which had been one of the most segregated cities in America. They later moved to California.
The purpose of Peoples Temple, as stated, was to feed the hungry, clothe the needy, ostensibly to try to raise up all the people who had been left out by society. Privately, within their organization, within their meetings where no outsiders were allowed, they also talked about what they were trying to do was set a socialist example - everyone treated the same, where race, money, nothing mattered. Human dignity was at a premium.
And Jones preached to his followers that if they would live in this socialist way as he led them, the rest of the world would be so overwhelmed by the goodness of what they were doing that everyone would live the same way, ultimately. They were not ever going to try to take over a government or a nation by revolt or violence. They intended to do it by example.
GROSS: But there was a real dark side to this. You're talking about the idealistic side, but the reality of what was going on is that he claimed to be God. He had total control over people's lives. He had them donate everything that they had and moved them or moved those willing to follow him - and it was just, like, under a thousand people who came with him - to the jungle of Guyana, where there was no way out. They carved out - I mean, they carved out a little part of the jungle for their village.
I want to cut to the end of the Jim Jones story, and then we'll tell the whole story in more detail. The story ends with him not only assuming complete control of their lives but complete control of their deaths. Describe the death that he orchestrated for everybody in his cult who was living with him in the jungle in Guyana.
GUINN: By the end, in November 1978, Jones' attitude towards his followers had changed. In the early stages of his ministry, when actually great things were often being accomplished, he thought of himself as the shepherd guarding his flock. More and more over the years, as his paranoia increased, as his drug use increased, he began to think of himself at war with almost everyone else in the outside world - the United States government, all kinds of secret forces. He believed - he talked himself into believing that at any moment he would be attacked, he would be brought down. And he passed this along to his followers.
At the end, he saw himself as a general. And his followers were his troops. And when Jones made the decision that there must be one last great gesture so that his name would live in history, his example would live in history, that would require the deaths of his followers.
GROSS: So the expression about drinking - like, he drank the Kool-Aid, like, he went along with it comes from Jonestown. But it wasn't Kool-Aid. It was another kind of punch.
GUINN: Flavor Aid was a cheap Kool-Aid knockoff. And in Jonestown, they lived only on the basics. Kool-Aid would have been too much of a luxury.
GROSS: Right. So he studied different toxins so that people could drink this punch and die. And he decided on cyanide. Why did he choose cyanide?
GUINN: For months before November 18, Jones had been studying, trying to decide the best means of committing revolutionary suicide. He and his henchmen, the folks that he would talk to most about these things, a few insiders, considered gunshots. That wouldn't work. They were trying to think, what way can it be done and done peaceably? They experimented, on livestock, different types of potions.
And finally, one night when Jones ordered his followers to drink punch that he said was laced with poison and would kill them and they did it and didn't die, he congratulated them for showing true revolutionary spirit and congratulated himself that he now had proof when the time came most, if not all of them, would follow his orders and kill themselves.
GROSS: So there is actually a tape, about a 40-minute tape of the final chapter in the Peoples Temple's history when he's convincing his followers that it's time to commit this revolutionary act that's not suicide. It's a revolutionary act. And you hear him convincing people that they need to go along and drink this punch. And then he says, are there any dissenters? And some people say, well, you told us that we could have a home in Russia if things fail here. So, like, let's try the Russia option. And he says, no, no, no, that's not going to work. And he explains why that's no longer going to work.
And then you hear other people, like, saying that they don't want to die. But then you hear people - and we'll hear some of this in the excerpt we're going to hear - you hear people thanking him and praising him and saying that they owe their lives to him. So let's hear some of the final moments in this surviving tape just before the members of this cult drink the poisoned punch.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIM JONES: We're not letting them take our life. We're laying down our life. (Unintelligible) Their lives. We just want peace.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All I'd like to say is that my so-called parents is filled with so much hate.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You got this. You got this. You got this, man. You got this. All right.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hate and treachery. I think you people out here should think about how your relatives was and be glad about - that the children are being laid to rest. And all I'd like to say is I thank Dad for making me strong to stand with it all and make me ready for it.
JONES: All they're doing - all they're doing is taking a drink to take - to go to sleep. That's what death is, sleep. I know that I'm tired of it all.
And we used to sing, this world - this world's not our home. Well, it sure isn't. That's what we were saying. It sure wasn't.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's right, yeah.
JONES: Really doesnât want to. Telling me - all heâs doing, if they will tell him - assure these - can some people assure these children of the relaxation of stepping over to the next plane? So set an example for others. We've set 1,000 people who've said, we don't like the way the world is. Take our life from us. We lay it down. We got tired. We didn't commit suicide. We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.
GROSS: So that's some of the final moments of the Jonestown cult and of the so-called death tape. And, you know, there's parts of this tape where you hear babies crying in the background and you know soon, like, they're going to be dead. But I think it must give a sense of how devoted these people were to him that they're about to kill themselves because he said they should. And they're thanking him - thank you, Dad.
GUINN: One of the things that's hardest for us to understand now looking back almost 40 years is how almost 900 people, actually a few over 900, could have followed what appear to be ridiculous orders from an obvious demagogue to kill themselves. But it's much more complicated than that. First of all, not everybody in Jonestown that day did agree to die, to drink the poison. We have to begin with out of over 900 human beings, 300 children, many of them infants, they have no choice. Their parents are making the choice for them.
Then we have another third who are elderly people, who aren't in the best of health, who if they don't follow Jim Jones' orders, are going to be left out in the deepest, densest, most dangerous jungle in the world. Their choices, essentially, are die quickly or die long, lingering deaths. In the middle, you have the adults, the younger people. And even among them, there's no unanimity.
Some do believe that Jim Jones is God or something close to God, and they worship him. And if he says do this, they're going to. Others don't believe Jones is a God, but they believe in their cause. And they have bought into his preaching that the rest of the world is coming in to get them. He's announced, just before bringing out the Flavor Aid laced with cyanide, that a congressman has been murdered. And that means that the attack from the outside, the Americans, probably the Guyanese government, will come any minute. They're going to slaughter us and take away our children. Isn't it better that we do this ourselves? We have this one last act of defiance.
GROSS: And the congressman you refer to is Congressman Leo Ryan, who had come to investigate what was actually going on in Jonestown. And after seeing what was going on, on the airstrip about to return, he was shot by one of the men that Jim Jones had sent, one of the armed men he'd sent to the airstrip. So were they just following Jones' orders, the shooters?
GUINN: Oh, very much so.
GUINN: Jones had determined the night before that he couldn't let Ryan and a few people from the temple who'd wanted to defect get away. His thought was, if you let a few people go, then more and more are going to want to go. If you let this congressman leave, more congressmen will come. So at this last instant, when he's announcing the congressman has died and he's been preaching to his followers for years that here we are in the jungle and at some point, our enemies are going to converge on us, they feel this is the time.
And even then, you still have a considerable number of people, his followers, who refuse to drink the potion.
GROSS: But as you write in the book, it wasn't really a choice for the people remaining at Jonestown whether to drink this toxic punch or not because there were gunmen standing all around them who were going to kill them. So that was the choice Jones gave them, right? Like, drink it voluntarily or you'll be shot to death.
GUINN: Essentially, Jones left his followers no choice. Even those who protested, if they didn't voluntarily drink the punch, they'd be held down and injected. He was the general. He had made the decision that his soldiers would die to make a statement. And he was not going to give them the option of saying no.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Guinn, author of the new book "The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones And Peoples Temple." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jeff Guinn, author of the new book "The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones And Peoples Temple." It's about the cult leader Jim Jones who led his followers to commit mass suicide. Guinn says Jones had the classic traits of a demagogue.
Well, as you point out, some demagogues appeal to people's darker nature, like Hitler or Charles Manson. But initially, Jones really appealed to people's ideals - social justice, integration, civil rights. And so people, like, initially followed him because he seemed to be an idealistic man. He became politically connected. People admired the work that he was doing. He helped integrate the Indianapolis schools.
But at the same time, he was a con man pretty early on. He became a Methodist minister. His wife was Methodist, and he briefly took on her religion. Then he became an itinerant preacher and psychic and faith healer. Let's get to some of that because this is where he really became a con man early on. During his early, like, healings, what did he do to convince people that he was performing these miraculous healing acts?
GUINN: Jim Jones was a tremendous performer. Instinctively, he understood the things that he would need to do in front of a crowd, not just to get their attention but to hold it and be remembered by them. He taught himself and then taught a few followers how to assist him. And in the book, I think readers are going to be amazed by how brilliantly he would concoct being able to summon cancers from people's bodies, which were actually rotten chicken parts that he would have planted earlier. And even then, as he starts to gain a following through these apparent miracles, he has a number of followers who are well aware, well, it's a trick.
But they tell themselves Jim is doing what he has to do to bring people in for the greater good because at the same time he is doing these terrible things, he's making things up, he's tricking people, he is also out there working for integration, for civil rights, for women's rights. And that is his argument. I need to do whatever is necessary to get people into the cause. After that, we can all accomplish great things.
This is what demagogues do. The difference - and this staggered me because there's proof of this time and again - almost all demagogues - and you mentioned Hitler, you mentioned Manson - appeal to the worst side of their potential followers. They simply think if together they can represent the best in humanity, then everyone else will want to follow suit voluntarily. At the same time, more and more they have to forgive Jim Jones's excesses.
OK, maybe he said something that wasn't true. So what? Maybe he's having sex with women within the group besides his wife. What can you do? That doesn't matter besides the great mission. And, of course, this is what makes Jim Jones perhaps the most effective demagogue in modern American history because he can convince people that if outsiders are in any way attacking or criticizing him, then what they're really doing is criticizing the great mission, the thing that is bigger than any individual.
GROSS: My reading of your book - and you can tell me if this is how you see it - is that beneath all of his idealism - maybe not initially, but certainly fairly soon - beneath all that idealism was this cynicism that he knew how to play people. He developed a very large African-American following and said something - I'm just going to paraphrase here - but said something to another of his followers that if you keep them poor and hungry, they'll always stay with you, you know, because there'll be a need.
GUINN: I think part of the time, Jim Jones was extremely cynical. But I also think there were other times that he pretty much talked himself into believing that he was something more than human and that it was necessary to do anything - and that pretty much means anything - to get enough followers that he can bring about these great acts, these great changes. And again, when we talk about he was a charlatan, the way he was a cynic, the way he brutally took advantage of people who trusted him, the part we forget is that for so many years Jim Jones and Peoples Temple were accomplishing great things.
It's not an accident that Jones became so politically powerful out in California to the point where Willie Brown, speaker in the California legislature, when he's introducing Jones at a testimonial dinner in Jones's honor compares him to Martin Luther King, Mao and even Gandhi. Jones had the ability to inspire people to do great things. That was offset by Jones's own fixation with his right to do whatever he personally wanted to do.
Yes, he took advantage of his followers, there is no question. The surprising thing, and really this makes what happened ultimately even sadder, the people who followed Jim Jones, many of them intelligent, socially conscious, ready to work hard to make the world better. And ultimately, he sacrificed them to his own ego and his own belief in himself. That is unforgivable.
DAVIES: Journalist Jeff Guinn speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Guinn's book, "The Road To Jonestown," is out in paperback. After a break, he'll talk about Jones' drug use and the roots of his paranoia, which date back to his childhood. Also, David Bianculli reviews the new AMC series "The Little Drummer Girl." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview recorded last year with Jeff Guinn about the cult leader Jim Jones. Guinn's book, "The Road To Jonestown," is out in paperback. Sunday marks 40 years since the massacre in Jonestown, the settlement Jones founded in the jungle of Guyana, where he led his followers, telling them they needed to flee from imminent martial law and concentration camps in America and nuclear war.
On November 18, 1978, Jones ordered and, when necessary, forced his followers to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch. He initially attracted his followers with appeals to idealistic goals, including civil rights, school integration and social justice.
GROSS: Like some other demagogues, Jim Jones became very obsessed with sex. And it's a kind of interesting, revealing part of the story that I want to talk with you about. His wife, Marceline, had severe back problems which were worsened by pregnancy and childbirth. And so she could not participate in a full sexual life. And he used that as an opportunity to take on a mistress, a member of the cult. And then after that, more mistresses and eventually kind of whatever women he wanted, you know, in the cult. What did he use to justify that to himself and to the women?
GUINN: It's sad. And it's wrong. But it's also true that throughout history, and certainly up to the modern day, men in positions of power take advantage of women who need their support in some way or another. Jones convinced himself, about the same time that he and Marceline couldn't have regular sexual relations anymore, that it was vital for the cause that Jim Jones be fulfilled in every way possible, and that includes sexually.
He would swear to followers who knew what he was doing that he's not doing it for himself. He's doing it for the cause, that if it makes him feel better, healthier, more energetic, that's important. He would also claim sometimes he was having sex with these women to help raise them up out of themselves, that they didn't have enough self-respect that lying with Father would make them feel that they were special. And in at least one or two cases, it actually had that effect.
He also had sex occasionally with men within the organization. And when this would happen, he would often say he was having sex with them to put them in their place, to remind them that they're no more special than anybody else. In other words, any excuse would do so long as it got Jim Jones what he wanted.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about Jim Jones' paranoia and delusions. He started taking drugs. What kind of drugs helped feed the paranoid side of his personality?
GUINN: Jones' paranoia is actually rooted in his childhood, where he had a mother who believed that she was reincarnated through many lives and that in a vision it was revealed to her that she would give birth to the greatest man who ever lived. So here he's hearing from the time he can understand words, you are something special. You have special powers. Then his mother would constantly harp about all the outsiders who are against them, who are holding her down, who are holding their family down. By the time he is a public figure himself, he's already, from the time he was a child, accepted the fact that he is being stood up and attacked by enemies everywhere.
When he's in California, when Peoples Temple has grown to the point where they have considerable influence, there's always pressure on Jim Jones. Demagogues face this. When you tell your followers you can somehow make miracles, you can do these great things, then you have to keep producing them. If you don't, they're going away. So no matter what positive thing the church could manage, he's always got to be worried - what's the next thing going to be, or else they won't follow me?
He begins taking amphetamines so that he can stay awake longer. He's working 20-hour days, even more sometimes. And then because the paranoia is set off by that drug because they make you so edgy, he has to start taking pills so he can go to sleep. And he's a man of excess. He'll take double the dosage to get up and he'll take triple the dosage to sleep to the point where sometimes he starts nodding out. We see Jim Jones with his dark glasses on, the sunglasses. They're his signature. And he would claim, I have to wear dark glasses because there's so much power in my vision. If you look directly in my eyes, you might be burned up. So I've got to wear these dark glasses.
In reality, he's wearing them because the whites of his eyes are pure red from the drug use. And any drug addict - and Jones was a drug addict - will develop even more acute paranoia. He did. So this mixes with his own megalomania. Clearly, with Jim Jones, with the drugs, with his own belief he can do anything and it's all right, it was going to happen. And it did.
GROSS: Give us another example of something that made you gasp.
GUINN: Marceline Jones, Jim Jones' long-suffering wife, by every account a wonderful woman dedicated to social change, gradually frozen out by him, first for some of her physical problems and later because she above all other people knew exactly who he was and how human he was. And he wanted to keep her away from having that kind of influence. I had not realized how in the last days, when everything is coming to a head, Marceline Jones is trying so hard to fight him, to convince him to stop. And she actually blows up at him. And she would send messages. She would say things to other people that would be reported.
So you've got this woman who realizes better than anybody else what may be coming, and she's fighting in some ways to try to stop him. She's the only one that's actively in there. And yet at the same time, she's sending him these notes, handwritten - and these are in the FBI files - that the best part of my life has been knowing you. I hope you can spare a little love for me. And there's actually a note she sent just before the end that if you can take yourself and some of the children, everybody else to Russia, I would volunteer to stay behind with the older folks who aren't capable of making the move and do whatever would be necessary here. And I would consider it an honor if you would allow me to do that.
So here you have this wonderful woman, and yet she is so torn. This is the effect of Jim Jones' personality, that she had maybe a clearer idea than anybody else of what might be coming any minute, and yet his hold over her, his emotional hold after all he did with her, was so strong at the same time she's begging him to be allowed to help. And that confusion, that contradiction just shows up over and over in these files. And it makes her one of the more interesting and also one of the more pathetic people involved.
GROSS: So did any of Jim Jones' children drink the poison punch and kill themselves?
GUINN: Jim Jones' adopted daughter Agnes and his adopted son Lew both drank punch that day and died.
GROSS: And how many of his children survived?
GUINN: At the time, Jim Jones had one daughter, Suzanne, who was estranged back in America. Three of his sons, Stephan, Jimmy and Tim, were with the Jonestown basketball team in Georgetown, the capital 150 miles away. He ordered them over the radio to commit suicide, and they refused. So he had four surviving children after this.
GROSS: And what about his wife, Marceline?
GUINN: Marceline died that day in Jonestown screaming at Jim Jones, you can't do this, you can't do this. On the death tape, you hear him saying, Mother, Mother, Mother, don't be like this. He was talking to her. She died with him that day.
GROSS: Did she drink the punch or was she shot?
GUINN: Her autopsy indicates that she drank the punch. She probably, at some point, figured there's no sense, I can't stop it. And she was an exhausted woman. She was ready to lay down and sleep.
GROSS: You talked to one or more of Jim Jones' surviving children. Can you share some of the insights that they gave you about his personality and what side of himself he showed to them?
GUINN: Stephen Jones, Jim Jones' only biological son, communicated with me a couple times by email and referred me to some things he had written. But I spent a considerable amount of time with Jim Jones Jr., Jim Jones' adopted son and according to family lore, the first black child ever to be adopted by a white couple in Indiana history. Jim Jr. does not excuse what his father did. He's horrified by it to this day. But he also talks about how at home, his father really was Dad, one of the few men of his era who would hug his sons and tell them he loved them, who was willing to kiss a male child in public.
And he remembers particularly one Christmas when his father's out preaching somewhere. And all Jim Jr. wants from Santa is for Dad to come home. And how late that night, the door comes open. And here's his father running to him. And Jim Jr. thinks it's the best Christmas ever because my dad is hugging me. Again, he doesn't excuse his father. But he talks about the other side, too.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Guinn, author of the new book "The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones And The Peoples Temple." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Guinn, the author of the new book "The Road To Jonestown: Jim Jones And Peoples Temple." And it's about the cult leader Jim Jones, who claimed to be God and claimed to be, you know, Lenin reincarnated, developed this large cult following, led about 1,000 followers to the jungle of Guyana, where they built their own settlement. And it ended with him basically forcing them to drink cyanide-laced fruit punch and commit suicide because he knew his number was up, and he was taking everyone down with him.
You said that you spoke to people who actually were on the site of this mass suicide after it happened. What did they find?
GUINN: The Guyanese troops that came in the next morning thought they were going to be facing armed revolutionaries. They guessed there might be a hundred or more Jonestown men armed with rifles waiting for them. So they're coming through the jungle cautiously. It's the hot season in Guyana. There's been a torrential downpour the day before, and steam is coming up from the floor of the jungle. It's almost like fog. And so they're coming into Jonestown in the perimeter, expect to be attacked any minute.
They've got their guns up and ready. The fog, the steam is in front of them. They can hardly see. And all of a sudden, they start to stumble, and they think that maybe these revolutionaries placed logs on the ground to trip them up. And now they're going to start shooting from ambush. And then a couple of the soldiers look down and they can see through the fog, and they start screaming because there are bodies everywhere, almost more than they can count. And they're so horrified. The bugs have already been at these bodies, the animals, the night creatures.
As the sun comes up, deterioration starts setting in. The stench is awful. They originally think maybe 400 people died. Where are the other 600 or so? They don't realize for another day that there are three layers of bodies - children on the bottom, then old people, then the younger ones. It takes several days for the entirety of this horrible thing to be fully understood just how many people died and how horribly they did. But that first morning with the fog and the soldiers coming in and tripping over bodies and screaming, that's a mental image that I have trouble forgetting.
GROSS: I just keep thinking that Jim Jones asked parents to take their lives of their children, to give them cyanide.
GUINN: The way Jones explained it, if you don't take your children with you to what he called the other side, stepping over, what will happen is the soldiers will come in and capture them. And then they will take them back to America, where these children will be subjected to terrible things. And they'll be brought up to be racists. Or if they're black, they'll be brought up basically to be slaves and subhuman. That the kindest thing to do, and he says this on the tape, the kindest thing we can do for our children and our old people is to take them with us and spare them from what's coming.
And so he even wants the children to go first, and that we need to let the parents who want to go with their children do that because that would be the compassionate thing to do. And the parents who do this, who cooperate, they truly believe because they've essentially been brainwashed by Jim Jones for so many years that this is the only way to save their children.
Remember that this is something that happens by degrees. It wasn't something that was just dropped on them at that terrible moment. Jones had been preaching for years that the time may come when we have to spare all our defenseless members and be brave enough to do this for them. It's just horrible. It seems beyond belief. But again, we have to remember the times. And we have to remember that Jones gained this power incrementally. It wasn't just overnight.
GROSS: So you've been kind of living in the mind of Jim Jones for years as you researched this. And so when you look around you now living in the present, do you see any echoes of Jim Jones?
GUINN: The things I've learned writing this book scare the hell out of me in terms of today's America. And as social media continues to expand, more and more people are getting unfiltered information that they can believe or not to believe. And we're entering a time in in our history, I think, where a lot of people think the truth doesn't matter because the truth is always going to be just what's convenient for them to believe.
The facts don't matter anymore. Leadership is less based on some sort of comprehensive plan to bring everyone together but instead people want to gain control and gain power in office by splitting up the country and having just enough margin on their side to get sufficient votes to win. And once people are in power, instead of using it positively, it's used instead to try to emphasize their ties with their followers and to show disdain, and even in some cases outright try to destroy, anybody who disagrees with them.
Jim Jones epitomizes the worst that can happen when we let one person dictate what we hear, what we believe that, anybody opposed to him must be opposed to us. This is what we're becoming. We can only change that if we learn from the past and try to apply it to today. So yes, the things I've learned writing this book scare the hell out of me.
GROSS: Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
GUINN: It's always a pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Jeff Guinn, speaking to Terry Gross, recorded last year. His book, "The Road To Jonestown," is out in paperback. Sunday marks 40 years since the Jonestown massacre. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new AMC series, "The Little Drummer Girl." This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Beginning Monday, AMC presents a new miniseries called "The Little Drummer Girl" based on the spy novel by John le Carre. It's being shown on consecutive nights in two-hour blocks. Our TV critic David Bianculli heartily approves of the miniseries and its scheduling.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: AMC's decision to show its new six-hour miniseries "The Little Drummer Girl" over three consecutive nights is a smart strategy. This spy story, based on the bestselling novel by John le Carre, begins at such a deliberate pace that it takes almost two hours before the central storyline, the actual spy mission, is set in motion. Had the miniseries been televised in one-hour installments, viewers might've gotten restless and given up. But by the end of the first two-hour block, anyone who stays with it, and I highly recommend you do, will be rewarded with one of the year's most tense and well-acted TV thrillers. The year is 1979. The setting initially is London. Florence Pugh from the recent drama "Lady Macbeth" plays Charlie, an actress in one of the city's small struggling theatrical troupes. A charismatic mystery man, played by Alexander Skarsgard of "Big Little Lies" and "True Blood," attends a couple performances of one production, then offers to fly the troupe to Greece to perform in some sort of special benefit. He's really interested in only one person, the actress Charlie. And it's because his boss, a man named Kurtz, has a special role for her to play. Kurtz, played by Michael Shannon of "The Shape Of Water" and "Boardwalk Empire," thinks Charlie has the perfect acting skills and real-life background to successfully infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell that's been conducting a series of bombings.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL")
MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Kurtz) We're not here to attack your politics, Charlie. In fact, we love your crazy politics, every paradox and conflicted spurt of anger or compassion. We believe in a bigger you, that you have talent to waste. And you believe it is being wasted. And if you decide to collaborate with us on this performance, I swear to God you will never be wasted again.
BIANCULLI: Kurtz, who's running this operation for the Israelis, offers her the literal role of a lifetime, playing a version of herself who, because of her background, appearance and talent, is the perfect bait to be noticed and recruited by the terrorists in question.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL")
SHANNON: (As Kurtz) Now, there will be no cut, no curtain - constant improvisation.
FLORENCE PUGH: (As Charlie) Well, [expletive], I've been kidnapped by an experimental theater company.
SHANNON: (As Kurtz, laughter) Experimental, certainly. Your audience - they won't even know they are watching, but they will be grateful. Kids, their parents - innocent bystanders would get a piece of shrapnel in their throat when a bomb goes off right beside them were it not for you. Should you want to go home, of course, back to your pub theaters, your lonely brilliance, no one is stopping you. But if you are at all intrigued by this role, we need to ask you a final round of questions tonight.
PUGH: (As Charlie) What's the character?
SHANNON: (As Kurtz) A terrorist.
BIANCULLI: This spy mission is almost like a play. Kurtz is the director, Skarsgard is the leading man who seduces and falls for Charlie and Charlie is the leading lady all in a very risky and unorthodox plot to infiltrate and neutralize a particularly effective squad of Palestinian bombers. All three of these performers and performances are particularly good. And all three characters have so many layers of deception that they are, in essence, always playing several characters at once. In adapting le Carre's novel to television, writers Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson have stayed true to the novel's detailed explanation of how and why the Israeli spies found and recruited Charlie. That explains and justifies the slow start. But once it gets going, "The Little Drummer Girl" never stops for a breath. And by the final hour, the intensity is so high that when South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who directed every segment, again slows the pace, it's only to make the tension all but unbearable.
Le Carre as a storyteller has one of the best and longest resumes of anyone in the miniseries genre. His novels have been not only suited for long-form TV treatments but perfect for them. Alec Guinness made British spy George Smiley an unforgettable TV character in the original miniseries version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" way back in 1979. And just two years ago, Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie made terrific adversaries in a TV adaptation of le Carre's "The Night Manager." "The Little Drummer Girl" is on par with those wonderful works, and its twists and subtleties are pure le Carre. But this new miniseries ended up reminding me of something else as well. The way it lays out its spy caper, chooses its participants and keeps adapting as things go awry, "The Little Drummer Girl" struck me as a variation on another very familiar TV theme. From start to finish, it's like a very expanded episode of "Mission: Impossible," and I mean that as a compliment.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." On Monday's show...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS")
TIM BLAKE NELSON: (As Buster Scruggs) Maybe some of y'all have heard of me. Buster Scruggs, known to some as the San Saba songbird.
DAVIES: "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs" is a new Coen brothers film of six stories about the Old West. There's singing, gunslinging cowboys, bank robbers and wagon trains on the Oregon Trail. We'll talk with Joel and Ethan Coen about the film. Hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES MOODY, HANK JONES, KENNY BARRON, TODD COOLMAN AND ADAM NUSSBAUM'S "GOOD BAIT")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Daniel Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES MOODY, HANK JONES, KENNY BARRON, TODD COOLMAN AND ADAM NUSSBAUM'S "GOOD BAIT")
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