There’s a general rule all journalists live by – if you’re not pissing somebody off, you’re probably not doing the job right.
Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ “Man in Moscow” throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s rarely pissed anybody off. He was well-respected, well-liked and even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. But the man was wrong.
Duranty, in a 1933 article, described a Soviet Union-created famine in Ukraine as “an exaggeration and malignant propaganda.” But, in reality, Duranty was the one pushing the propaganda. While he never saw the very real famine – which killed an estimated 10 million Ukrainians- Duranty probably would have denied its existence even if he had.
Duranty was an ideologue- somebody who so desperately wanted the Soviet Communist experiment to succeed that he only saw the facts that supported his thesis. Ukrainians surviving only on tree bark and the corpses of their loved ones did not fit his thesis.
“Mr. Duranty was neither a Communist nor swayed by Moscow gold,” Times reporter Karl Meyer wrote in a 1990 opinion piece for the paper. “Instead, his feelings revealed a more mundane affliction: he succumbed to a thesis. Having bet his reputation on Stalin, he strove to preserve it by ignoring or excusing Stalin’s crimes. He saw what he wanted to see.”
Duranty, I imagine, is the sort of journalist that those who accuse the press of “fake news” fear the most. He reported not the hard facts, but an opinion with little basis in truth. And certainly there are still Durantys in the world of journalism, maybe more than I would like to admit.
But keep in mind that somebody had to break the news of what was really happening in Ukraine – somebody who objectively reported what he saw and stood firm against Soviet government pushback. He never won a Pulitzer, and his name – Gareth Jones- is more or less forgotten today. But he did the work, he told the truth and he opened the world’s eyes.
Agnieszka Holland’s “Mr. Jones” tells that journalist’s very worthy story in beautiful, heartbreaking and often inspiring fashion. By depicting the brutality of the Soviet regime, Holland reminds us of the value of human life and of the press, and how the latter has an integral role in preserving the former.
Jones (played by James Norton, lately of Greta Gerwig’s lovely “Little Women” revival) arrives in Moscow in 1933, not with a thesis but with questions. The Great Depression is in full swing, and the world’s economy is on the verge of collapse, but the Soviets are on a spending spree. How does that happen?
Jones’ questions are spurned by Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard, appropriately unctuous) and the Soviet government, but Jones presses on. A colleague was close to breaking a big story before being murdered by the Soviets, and Jones is convinced that Ukraine is the key.
This sets the stage for an exceedingly bleak middle section, entirely in subtitled Russian and framed in dark grey tones. Holland’s Ukraine looks like something out of a horror movie, as I’m sure Stalin’s did. “Mr. Jones” is easily one of the bleakest depictions of Communism ever put to screen, and it’s an indictment of a system that breaks society into the haves and have-nots, and then lets the have-nots fend for themselves.
“It’s the same sort of exploitation that exists here,” Jones says after returning to his native Great Britain. “Only worse.”
But as bleak as “Mr. Jones” can be, it also serves as a tribute to good old-fashioned investigative reporting, and the courage it takes to write and publish an uncomfortable story amidst resistance. The third act, which involves Jones teaming with William Randolph Hearst to get his story out and inspiring George Orwell to write his famed Soviet indictment “Animal Farm,” is enough to give you faith that the press, while flawed, can still have a galvanizing force of change in society.
The film is well-acted with Norton’s quiet intensity stealing the show and Sarsgaard making for a suitably complicated foil to our hero.
Holland brings a lot of directorial flash to what could have been a boilerplate biopic – from a breezy tracking shot along telephone wires to an entire conversation framed through Jones’ reflection in a hall of mirrors. From start to finish, the film is beautiful to look at.
Opinions may vary on the effectiveness of Holland’s framing device of Orwell (Joseph Mawle) writing “Animal Farm,” and I understand why some critics may find it a bit on the nose. But it worked for me. Using a touchstone of literature as the story’s entry point provides a common language that everybody who has had a high school English class can understand.
“Mr. Jones” is not perfect. A fellow journalist played by Vanessa Kirby never feels fully realized, and it might take a few viewings to fully understand the jampacked plot and its players.
There is also an unfortunate scene that pushes this unrated film firmly into R-rated territory, a shame since it limits the film’s accessibility to younger audiences, who are perhaps the ones who need this story most. Because “Mr. Jones” provides a sobering reminder of what can happen when economic gain is valued over human life and when thesis is valued over truth.
“Mr. Jones” may be a period piece, but its messages are more important than ever. As Orwell narrates near the top of the film, “The future is at stake, so please read between the lines.”
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.