A lone voice stands up against the venality of the Western elite. A totalitarian government is exposed for creating wealth out of the misery of its people. The media and political class are excoriated for gross incompetence and cynical narratives that manipulate popular opinion. No, this is not a general synopsis of the post-2016 world, but rather, the themes present in Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s film, Mr. Jones.
A lone voice stands up against the venality of the Western elite.
Set in the Great Depression year of 1933, Mr. Jones tells the story of Welsh reporter Gareth Jones (James Norton), who, after being cut loose from the employ of former British prime minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), travels to Moscow to interview Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. As is shown early in the film, Jones has a reason for wanting to speak with the “Man of Steel”: an earlier interview with the new German chancellor Adolf Hitler has convinced him of the necessity of an Anglo-Soviet alliance to prevent a second world war. Lloyd George’s friends and advisors scoff at Jones, telling him that Hitler is nothing to be concerned about, a gentle reminder that an insular and arrogant elite “political advisory” class is far from new.
Jones’s journey to Moscow is facilitated by fellow journalist Paul Kleb (Marcin Czarnik), a fictional representation of the real Russian-American Forbes journalist, Paul Klebnikov, who was murdered in 2004, either by a Chechen warlord or, as many in the West claim, on orders of President Putin himself. Before he can be of much help to Jones, however, Kleb winds up with four bullets in his back outside of the plush Hotel Metropole. The Soviet authorities call it a robbery gone wrong; Jones, however, quickly concludes that Kleb was assassinated because of a story he was working on. The Soviet preference for secrecy, the forced sequester of foreign journalists at the Hotel Metropole, and Jones’s prior experience with political terror in Weimar Germany makes Kleb’s assassination likely, if not certain.
Jones decides to take up the story where Kleb left off and begins by leaning on a British journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a committed Marxist employed by New York Times editor Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard). Brooks reveals to Jones that the story lies in Ukraine—the breadbasket of Europe and the land of “Stalin’s gold,” aka wheat. Jones’s investigation leads him to contact a Soviet apparatchik, and he plays on the man’s patriotism by suggesting that the Soviet state is incapable of thwarting a German invasion. This proves enough of an incentive; Jones is granted official access to Ukraine.
Here the darkness of Mr. Jones becomes almost overwhelming, with the bleak backdrop of a harsh winter playing chorus to scenes of death, cannibalism, and sundry brutality.
After cleverly escaping his commissar minder, Jones finds himself in a Ukraine in the grips of the Holodomor, one of the world’s worst man-made famines. Here the darkness of Mr. Jones becomes almost overwhelming, with the bleak backdrop of a harsh winter playing chorus to scenes of death, cannibalism, and sundry brutality. In one harrowing scene, Jones stumbles on a home occupied only by children, who offer him a bowl of boiled meat. The meat once belonged to their brother, who died in the harsh Ukrainian frost.
Worst of all, after he is forced back to London, Jones’s story is met with hostility by the British press and Duranty, a paid shill for Stalin who uses his Pulitzer Prize as cover for his propagandistic activities. Jones gives speeches to small audiences and attempts to drum up support for his reporting, but he is thwarted at every turn by attacks from Duranty or the incredulous sneers of the establishment. Even George Orwell, who is shown meeting Jones over a lunch meeting arranged by their shared publisher, downplays the horrors that Jones saw by suggesting that Stalin’s excesses are needed in order to make a better, more humane future.
These excesses included the virtual enslavement of the Soviet population, from Ukraine to the Russian Far East. During the same time as the Holodomor, the forced labor camps (gulags) housed 179,000 inmates in Siberia and Kazakhstan. By 1935, the gulag population amounted to a million souls. As terrifying as it sounds, Gareth Jones only saw a fraction of the horror of Stalin’s reign.
Eventually, Jones is sent packing back to Wales for a local newspaper. He does not give up; however, and ultimately he succeeds in giving his story to a wider audience by barging in on American publisher William Randolph Hearst at his Vale of Glamorgan vacation property. The wily Jones re-ignites Heart’s old feud with Joseph Pulitzer (the namesake of the Pulitzer Prize) to finally get the truth about the USSR to the Anglophone world.
GARETH JONES: A MARTYR FOR TRUTH
Unlike most Hollywood films that make the claim, Mr. Jones is indeed based on a true story. A Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones really did expose the horrors of the Holodomor to the world, and did so at a time when Stalin was trying hard to gain foreign investment for his rapid industrialization plans. He paid for this crusade with his life.
Indeed, despite the New York Times publicly refuting his legacy, Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize, which was won because of his coverage of the Soviet Union, remains intact.
In fact, for his role in drumming up bad publicity for Soviet-style communism, Jones was most likely murdered by a Soviet NKVD agent while he was in Manchuria in August 1935, working on a story about the rise of Japanese military hegemony in the region. As for Duranty, the clear villain of both the film and the events as they occurred, his propaganda on behalf of Stalin and the USSR went unpunished until long after his death in 1957. Indeed, despite the New York Times publicly refuting his legacy, Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize, which was won because of his coverage of the Soviet Union, remains intact. (The irony, of course, is not lost on those who know the story that the New York Times once covered up Russian atrocities that killed millions, but is now best known as the mouthpiece for the Russian collusion hoax that sees Putin’s Russia as the great evil of the world.)
Holland and cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk deserve a lot of credit for the dark romanticism of Mr. Jones. Viewers can practically smell the rain-swept concrete of interwar London and the frozen desperation of 1930s Ukraine. Screenwriter Andrea Chalupa also did a serviceable job, although actual scenes of the Holodomor do not make up the majority of the film. Jones’s travels through Ukraine are contained to about twenty minutes of the film. Still, the Ukrainian scenes are without question the most powerful in the film. Viewers who see ravenous wolves prowl on the periphery of deserted Ukrainian villages or watch the desperation of a train car full of hungry peasants fight over bread cannot help but be moved. Disturbing too is the disconnect between masses of starving and brutalized peasants and the occasional glimpses of Soviet propaganda which show a grinning Stalin holding up bushels of wheat.
Rather than the Holodomor itself, Mr. Jones makes greater mileage out of depicting corruption: the totalitarian surveillance of the Soviet government and the problem of activist journalism placing “the cause” and “the revolution” ahead of human life. One particularly powerful scene takes place at a party thrown by Duranty, where drugs, alcohol, and sex, both heterosexual and homosexual, flow freely. In a world still coming to grips with the revelations of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell’s pedophile ring, Mr. Jones highlights the long relationship between the so-called smart set and debauchery.
It is worth noting that Mr. Jones was partially funded by the Ukrainian State Film Agency. The government of Ukraine has a vested interest in making Russia, which controls much of the country’s east through local proxies, look as bad as possible. Meanwhile, the Holodomor remains a controversial topic among historians. While most scholars agree that the famine, which may have killed as many as twelve million people (the consensus is somewhere around 3.5 million), was the result of Stalin’s collectivization policies which seized Ukrainian grain for export as a both a means to trade with the West for industrial goods, and to punish independent-minded Ukrainian peasants. Many Ukrainian peasants were labeled as “kulaks,” the relatively wealthy class of peasants who owned land and could sell their surplus grain. Stalin murdered and deported the kulaks en masse after first leading a campaign of complete dehumanization against them. The starvation campaign was also done in order to snuff out Ukrainian nationalism. It needs also be noted that the Ukrainians were not the only group to suffer Stalin’s madness. Between 1930 and 1933, approximately 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan died during a massive famine.
The problem of “true believers,” or diehard adherents to socialism who refuse to acknowledge the manifold failures of Marxism, still exists and, if anything, has only intensified since the 1960s.
Some, including many Russian nationalists and historians, refute this and claim, however, going as far as to say that the famine either did not happen or was the result of a terrible harvest. Even the great anti-Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn countered claims of genocide as “shameless lies” exploited by Ukrainian nationalists. For Solzhenistsyn, many Russian historians, and the American historian Mark Tauger, the Holodomor was the result of a botched agricultural policy, not an intentional genocide. While the United States recognizes the Holodomor as an act of genocide, Russia does not, nor do its biggest trading partners like Germany, the United Kingdom, and China.
Mostly though, Mr. Jones is stark in how contemporary it is. Rather than the Soviet Union, China is today’s bête noir, and, just like the Soviets, they have flooded Western academia and intellectual class with money and influence. The problem of “true believers,” or diehard adherents to socialism who refuse to acknowledge the manifold failures of Marxism, still exists and, if anything, has only intensified since the 1960s. Today’s journalists, especially at the elite level, are left-wing activists who have grown brazen in their desire to propagate radical narratives to the American masses. And, when one of their own pushes back on this political uniformity, they pounce with a type of venom that was inculcated by Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s.
“Cancel culture” is now a household word because of the power of left-wing ideology in the media (both traditional and digital), academia, and government bureaucracy. While today’s political dissidents are not executed after show trials, they are still publicly shamed and marked in order to keep them quiet and unemployable. Left-wing domination of the media also leads to cognitive dissonance on a massive scale, with left-wing narratives enjoying wider acknowledgement and cultural currency than others.
Gareth Jones died as a martyr for the truth. He was scorned and punished by his colleagues for daring to contradict the popular image of the Soviet workers’ paradise. One could not help but speculate about how Jones would be treated today if he challenged today’s progressive idols.