Tuesday, December 8, 2020
It was worth the trouble. Not to be confused with the romantic 1993 film starring Richard Gere and Lena Olin, or the 2013 horror movie starring Jon Foster and Sarah Jones, the 2019 Mr. Jones is a story about how a crusading Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones traveled to the Soviet Union under phony press credentials, slipped away from his Communist Party handler and blew the lid off of the Holodomor, i.e. the man-made famine in Ukraine that killed millions in the early 1930s. It blacked Stalin's eye and made the west's decision to ally itself with the USSR much more complex than it otherwise would have been, at that stage in World War II. It should have made it even more complicated, I think, after seeing only a brief, cinematic version of what Jones experienced in Ukraine – desperate, dying people being forced, with the last of their strength, to load all the grain they had grown in the Soviet Union's breadbasket onto trains bound for Moscow, leaving nothing for themselves.
The picture stars James Norton of Grantchester as Jones, who (we learn from a few titles at the end of the film) was kidnapped and murdered a year or so later under circumstances that suggest it was the USSR's way of getting back at him. Norton portrays Jones as an upright, straight-laced guy who fearlessly pursued the truth and responded to it with passionate commitment. It will be hard to forget the emotional impact of such scenes as Jones fleeing into the snowy woods under rifle fire; finding a couple of villagers dead in their bed; realizing that what kind of meat an orphan has cooked for him; hearing from a local woman that millions are dying; being told that eight hostages will die if he writes his story; and finally, breaking into William Randolph Hearst's home and telling him about the story he wants to tell before the servants can chuck him out.
Other key roles in the story go to Peter Sarsgaard as the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who carried water for Stalin's regime and did all that he could to squelch Jones' story; Vanessa Kirby of The Crown as a leftist journalist who, in spite of her political sentiments, sacrificed her career to help Jones; Joseph Mawle as George Orwell, who is depicted writing Animal Farm in parallel with Jones' story; and director Agnieszka Holland, who brought an expressive style to a film that contrasts the sybaritic excesses of Moscow's Metropol Hotel with the hungry countryside that Jones found. With vivid, stylistic flair, Holland dares to show us the evil that Jones went up against, to say nothing of the pragmatic west's willingness to overlook it. Whatever actual number of victims the Holodomor claimed, whether or not a Soviet finger pulled the trigger that killed Jones, whatever justification the west might have for making common cause with Stalin against Hitler, and all the word-games you can play over what constitutes forced starvation (as opposed to people dying of illness brought on by malnutrition as a result of government policies), a reminder that Duranty's Pulitzer was never revoked forms a pretty jarring postscript to an intense, challenging film.
Three Scenes That Made It For Me come, as it were, in pairs: (1) A drunken Duranty gets into Jones' face at wild party, subtly threatening him for being such a goody-goody, while dressed the part of the Emperor with no clothes. Think about that later when, as the police lead Jones away, Duranty sends him off with a sanctimonious lecture. (2) The girl, Ada Brooks, crosses out and refuses to sign the denouncement of Jones that Duranty dictates to her. You'll recall an earlier scene when Duranty editorially crossed out a large section of one of her stories. (3) After hearing Jones speak about what he saw in Ukraine, Orwell – whom we have seen all this time typing passages from Animal Farm, expressing his own disillusionment with socialism – pleads with him to consider it in a light more favorable to the political and economic miracle Stalin is trying to pull off. Jones only has to say, "I know what I saw," to leave Orwell looking crushed.
Movies indicting the way we live are all the rage these days. Here's one, for a change, that does a very good job of showing that the leading alternative might be even more worthy of indictment, judging by history. Let us pray that our civilization doesn't follow this tried and disproven path.