Journalists are under attack in the United States for daring to do their jobs. If you question the statements given by the country’s president and share the truth with the public, you’ll be attacked by the president and his followers for spreading “fake news”. It’s even become a catchphrase of his, lobbed like a weapon at seemingly any journalist who deviates from the established party line.
Naturally, like so many other terrible things that have occurred under this administration, this is not a new phenomenon. The new film from acclaimed filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, In Darkness) tells the story of a journalist who snuck into Ukraine to report on the man-made famine that killed millions, only for his reporting to be dismissed by so many in positions of power. Mr. Jones is not without some flaws, chiefly in its pacing, but those fade into the background thanks to the film’s compelling subject matter and a wonderful central performance from James Norton.
“The fact that I have more questions than answers makes me nervous.”
It is 1933. Gareth Jones (Norton) is an ambitious young journalist and skilled linguist who has just published an interview with Adolf Hitler that he conducted shortly after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. With no shortage of connections thanks to his previous work as a Foreign Affairs Advisor to former Prime Minister Lloyd George, Jones decides to next set his sights on the Soviet Union. His goal? To interview Joseph Stalin about the Soviet Union’s economic growth, including its apparently successful five-year plan.
Jones arrives in Moscow to learn that his great plans for uncovering the truth about the Soviet Union are going to be much harder to execute than he had anticipated. The government has not only restricted his activities to Moscow, but they have also ensured that he cannot stay in the country for longer than a week by claiming that the hotels are all booked up. With limited time and resources at his disposal, Jones connects with Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow Bureau Chief of The New York Times, but is disappointed when Duranty seems to care more about inviting him to sex-and-drug-fueled parties than helping him secure a meeting with Stalin.
New York Times reporter Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) is attracted to Jones, but she too seems unwilling to uncover any potential dirt on her adopted country. But Jones remains undeterred, sneaking off of a train into forbidden Ukraine, where he discovers that things are even worse than he had suspected. Here is the man-made famine that became known as the Holodomor, where starving peasants must wait in long lines for bread beneath murals of a beatific Stalin bestowing grain on a grateful people. The bread lines, however, are nothing compared to the other horrors Jones discovers in the countryside, including orphaned children resorting to cannibalism in order to survive.
Jones eventually makes his way back to Britain to write and publish his story but is shocked to learn that his peers are less than interested in hearing it. Indeed, Duranty goes so far as to accuse him of lying, denying the existence of the famine in the pages of The New York Times. Even progressive writer George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) is at first reluctant to believe Jones; like Duranty and Brooks, he too wants to believe that the economic miracle of the Soviet Union is just that — a miracle. These Western intellectuals, inspired by the idealism of Communism, are holding out hope that Stalin’s Soviet Union will form a blueprint for a better society in the future.
“What is deranged in a deranged world?”
Jones put his life and integrity on the line for the sake of exposing the truth behind the lies, fully believing that journalism is the noblest calling. That his eyewitness reporting was essentially decried as “fake news” by those whose personal interests it did not serve makes Mr. Jones an all too timely film. Holland, whose parents were both politically active journalists and whose father died under interrogation by the Communist police in Poland, clearly has a personal attachment to the story. (She herself was imprisoned in Czechoslovakia for political activities during the Prague Spring.) Indeed, her entire oeuvre shows a keen interest in shining a light on the worst crimes of humanity with a blunt and unforgiving eye. Mr. Jones is no different, sparing the viewer none of the horrors of the Holodomor with its depiction of the mass starvation witnessed by Jones. These scenes are almost dialogue-free and eerily silent, but the quiet only gives them extra gravity.
Andrea Chalupa’s script tells Jones’ story using scenes of Orwell writing Animal Farm as a framing device, as the novel was inspired by Jones’ journalism. While the decision to incorporate him into the story makes sense, as it grounds the reception of Jones’ journalism in a real-life figure most are familiar with, these scenes fall flat when compared with those focused on Jones. That’s because Norton’s brilliantly earnest and energetic performance as the crusading journalist is the heart and soul of the film.
With his undeniably handsome face hidden behind owlish glasses, Norton brings an honesty and a sincerity to the character that makes it impossible not to root for him. Full of intelligence and integrity, Norton’s Gareth Jones embodies everything admirable about journalism; indeed, his performance should be seen by anyone who doubts how crucial the role journalists play in society is, and how many sacrifices must be made by them when reporting the truth.
Jones’ foil is Duranty, the cynical and corrupt New York Times bureau chief who is reluctant to report on anything that might harm his standing in society. Sarsgaard portrays him with his usual brand of oily charm; he makes Duranty’s brazen disregard for the outside world almost seductive, thereby highlighting how dangerous it is. While Jones is an admirable example of everything a good journalist should be, Duranty is a cautionary tale of what can happen when journalists put themselves before the story.
The flaw of Mr. Jones is that it leaves you wanting more; the film’s finale, once Jones’ reporting is published, feels rushed, leaving the full impact of his work relatively unexplored. In contrast, the earlier portions of the film, in which Jones is running around Moscow with the beautiful Ada Brooks, drag a bit. Yet these imperfections don’t take away from its importance. Mr. Jones highlights the need for investigative journalism even in a world where hard evidence can be met with accusations of untruth. We would do well to remember that.
What do you think? Had you previously heard of Gareth Jones? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Mr. Jones will be released digitally on June 19, 2020.
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