‘Mr. Jones’ Exposes the Horrors of Stalin’s Famine

and the complicity of The New York Times

I saw the Mr. Jones movie, now available on Video On Demand. This film from Polish director Agnieska Holland, who never shies away from difficult subjects, covers the Holodomor, the deliberate starvation of the Ukraine by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. The Holodomor joins recent topics where I find myself saying “I should have heard about them in school,” like the 1921 Tulsa massacre, the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, and the fact that Ulysses S. Grant once owned a slave. Well, I’ve heard about them now.


MR. JONES ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Agnieska Holland
Written by: Andrea Chalupa
Starring: James Norton, Vanessa Kirby, Peter Sarsgaard
Running time: 141 min


 

Mr. Jones, despite being about a Ukrainian famine, only spends about a quarter of its screen time in the Ukraine. Believe me, that’s enough. There are plenty of scenes of freezing, starving peasants resorting to cannibalism. Holland gets across the horror grimly and grayly, but manages to steer away just in time to prevent Mr. Jones from becoming torture porn.

 

The tremendously interesting and subtle screenplay from Andrea Chalupa asks larger and more complicated questions than: Why did Stalin starve the Ukraine? The simple, terrible answer is so he and the new Russian elite could eat caviar in Moscow. But Mr. Jones is more interested in the complicity of the West. Our hero, Gareth Jones, played kind of flatly by James Norton, is a Welsh bureaucrat who works for the British Prime Minister. He begins the movie by trying to get a bunch of harrumphing old men in walrus mustaches to take seriously the threat of Hitler.

When they brush him off and then lay him off, he turns his attention to another pressing question. How is the obviously broke Soviet Union ramping up its industrial war machine? England and the U.S.A. don’t seem to care, as they’re most interested in using the Soviets as a buffer against the growing threat in Germany. But Mr. Jones has a burning question, and people with burning questions become freelance journalists.

Once he gets to Moscow, Mr. Jones runs up against one of the greatest movie villains in recent memory, and one of the most profoundly evil men in world history. Walter Duranty, played with slithering certainty by Peter Sarsgaard, was the New York Times’ man in Moscow. Stalin paid Duranty extra in money and women. His “journalism” provided cover for Stalin’s crimes in the West, for which the establishment earned him a Pulitzer Prize and a comfortable retirement in Florida. Mr. Jones encounters Duranty at a grimly hedonistic party featuring hookers, heroin, and Django Reinhardt-style jazz guitar. He finds the scene disgusting and instead retreats to the arms of Duranty’s associate Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who spouts platitudes about the revolution but has some lingering doubts.

Once Mr. Jones gets to the Ukraine, he sees the truth of the Holodomor. The rest of the film involves him trying, with limited success, to get that truth out to the world. In a pretentious framing device, Holland has George Orwell, who apparently encountered Mr. Jones in real life, writing Animal Farm, a too-late warning to the world about the evils of Communism.

That’s the least-effective aspect of a movie that feels relevant, at least obliquely, to our current situation. Mr. Jones sets out a simple premise. There was a state-forced famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s. And we must remember that. More subtly, and maybe more importantly, it warns us that we cannot blindly trust our media to tell us the truth. And that we should never let ideology get in the way of reality. The New York Times provided cover for Stalin.

One of the more baffling aspects of our current moment is that no one trusts anyone, and multiple truths are existing side by side. But there are some objective truths, and Mr. Jones takes a powerful stand in favor of reality. It’s an important film, if not a fun one. Also, Walter Duranty was the devil.

This concludes my review of the Mr. Jones movie.

Mr Jones
‘Mr. Jones’ bears witness to the Holodomor, to telling the truth no matter what the cost, and to the Ukraine as a poor choice for a winter vacation. Directed by Agnieska Holland.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

3 thoughts on “‘Mr. Jones’ Exposes the Horrors of Stalin’s Famine

  • July 23, 2020 at 7:29 pm
    Permalink

    For crying out loud, Neal. The reason the movie talks about Walter Duranty, and not “why” Stalin did what he did, was because the movie wasn’t about Stalin( we already know that because he told us), it was about Duranty and his deceit, dishonesty, and willingness to make excuses for a failed political ideology and the courageous journalist who called out his lies.

    Reply
    • July 23, 2020 at 7:32 pm
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      just to clarify, this is in response to your RT review comment. As if the movie is somehow illegitimate, flawed, or hypocritical because it focuses, finally, on the complicity of the Times.

      Reply
      • July 28, 2020 at 6:26 pm
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        Tom, I did mention the complicity of the Times and Duranty, quite substantially, in my review. It just didn’t appear in the RT blurb!

        Reply

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