The new film Mr. Jones makes a statement that critics of the media will enthusiastically support. The movie, which opened in Europe in 2019 and will be available to stream stateside on June 19, focuses on the work of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who in the early 1930s revealed the lies told by Stalin and the Soviet propaganda machine about the Ukraine famine—in which millions of people were starved to death in the name of “modernizing” Russia. Mr. Jones reminds viewers that the Western press has an appalling record of dishonesty and sympathy to totalitarian regimes, an especially relevant message in our era of “fake news.” It is not a perfect film, but it is a very good one.
Directed by the Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland and written by the journalist and author Andrea Chalupa, the film establishes its tone and theme quickly. The year is 1933. Gareth Jones, played marvelously by James Norton, is a British Foreign Office worker who has just interviewed Adolf Hitler on a private plane. Jones is convinced Hitler presents a worldwide threat—“world history would have changed” if Hitler’s plane gone down, he later muses—but he is scoffed at by former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham). Jones is a zealous truth-teller. Shortly after the Hitler scoop, he finds himself out of work due to budget cuts. Back home, he begins to doubt the official narrative about the growth of the Soviet economy. Jones asks a simple question: where is the money coming from? Stalin’s claims about the new, booming Russia don’t match up with the starving witnesses on the ground. Jones lobbies Lloyd George to send him to Russia to meet with the dictator. When he is refused, he goes himself as a stringer for the Western Mail.
Once in Moscow, Jones realizes that Stalin’s collectivization is a fraud perpetrated by a criminal government and propped up by sympathetic journalists from the West. These include one Walter Duranty, the oleaginous, established correspondent for The New York Times. Duranty is played to slimy effect by Peter Sarsgaard, who coincidentally also played Charles Lane, the editor of the exposed New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass, in Shattered Glass (2003). Duranty strikes entire pages of copy that don’t uphold the official Soviet view. The journalist Joseph Alsop once called Duranty a “fashionable prostitute” for the Bolsheviks, and to British writer Malcolm Muggeridge, who was blackballed by many British newspapers after reporting the truth from Russia, Duranty was “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism.” But the Soviet sympathizer won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his exclusive interviews with Stalin. To defend everything from mass starvation to the show trials of 1928, 1934, and 1936, Duranty had a simple response, parroting Robespierre: “You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
A hedonist who walked with a cane after losing a leg in a train accident, Duranty is shown throwing parties filled with jazz, opium, and lots of naked bodies. One of the funniest and most unsettling scenes in Mr. Jones comes when Jones is confronted by a naked Duranty at one such bacchanal. Duranty, irritated that Jones keeps asking the wrong questions and isn’t interested in sleeping with one of the women at the party, calls him a nobody. “I must be somebody,” Jones retorts. “I’m standing in front of the naked Moscow correspondent of The New York Times.” Director Holland conveys claustrophobic environments well, whether in a parlor-room party or a train packed with starving Ukrainians.
Jones is discouraged from reporting the truth by Duranty and Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a young journalist who serves as Duranty’s assistant and co-censor. Both Duranty and Brooks are true believers in the pseudoscience of Marxism. “What is going on here will transform the human race,” Duranty says. Brooks is slightly more conflicted, as her friend and fellow journalist Paul Kleb (an obvious homage to Paul Klebnikov, a journalist who was murdered in Moscow in 2004) has just been knocked off by the Soviets. Still, even after the crime, Brooks exults about the great new day right around the corner. If only the obstacles to Stalin were removed! She hesitates, but doesn’t recant, when Jones reminds her that she is “talking about Paul as a human sacrifice.” Defying official orders, Jones leaves Moscow to go to Ukraine, where he witnesses the horror of the famine, the “Holodomor,” in person. When he tries to report the truth, the Russian secret service threatens to kill his friends. Jones appears to demur, only to return to America and convince William Randolph Hearst (Matthew Marsh) to publish the truth.
Mr. Jones is an important film, if an uneven one. There is not much of a musical score, leaving some scenes to feel flat. George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), writing Animal Farm, makes a brief cameo. The inclusion doesn’t add much to the main plot and should have been cut to make more room for the conflict between Jones and Duranty. Peter Sarsgaard as Duranty is tragically underused. Still, Mr. Jones is a reminder that corruption in the media—so evident in our time from the reluctance to cover the Spygate scandal (an attempted coup of the President of the United States) to the vilification of Brett Kavanaugh (something this writer was near ground zero for) and what Quillette recently called the “botched journalism” of Ronan Farrow—is not a new story. In fact, in terms of sheer numbers, the corruption and incompetence of today’s media may be worse than what Jones faced.