Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Agnieszka Holland’s Mr. Jones

In times of crisis, some reporters set a valiant standard of professionalism, while others cravenly betray their commitment to the truth and free expression. Do not count on the journalistic establishment to accurately identify the former or the latter. Today, Walter Duranty is widely recognized as a willing stooge, who knowingly covered up Stalin’s genocidal crimes. Yet, the Pulitzer board refuses to rescind his Pulitzer Prize and his old employer, the New York Times has declined to return it. Gareth Jones exposed the Ukrainian Holodomor, the deliberate, systemic starvation of millions of Ukrainian—the very story Duranty tried to hide from the world. Agnieszka Holland (who was imprisoned in Czechoslovakia and exiled from her native Poland) tells the Welsh journalist’s tragic-heroic story in Mr. Jones, which releases today on VOD.

Initially, Jones did not come to Moscow to dig up dirt on the Communist system. The plan was to secure an interview with Stalin, in hopes of convincing the dictator to open a second front against the newly ascendant Hitler (alas, Germany and the USSR would sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact four years after the events of this film). However, when Jones arrives in Moscow, he finds his (fictionalized) good friend Paul Kleb (a transparent reference to Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist suspiciously murdered while investigating Putin) has been killed by petty street crime (in the workers’ paradise), according to Duranty, through whom the Soviets grant or withhold western journalists’ access.

The last time Jones spoke to Kleb, he mentioned a potentially explosive scoop. In short order, Duranty’s German colleague Ada Brooks confirms the open secret of widespread Ukrainian famine, but she counsels Jones to go along, to get along. Instead, he risks his life and liberty to investigate the Ukrainian genocide first-hand.

Mr. Jones is very much a historical expose, in the tradition of Holland’s masterwork, The Burning Bush, but in many ways, it also functions as a gripping thriller. Viewers can almost literally feel the eyes of the early surveillance state on them as Jones secretly pursues the truth. At times, Holland and production designer Gregorz Piatkowski make 1930s Moscow literally resemble the dystopia of 1984. Clearly, this is deliberate, since Holland flashforwards to George Orwell writing Animal Farm (inspired by Jones’ reports) as a recurring motif.

James Norton is well-cast as Jones, convincingly conveying his initial naivetĂ© and idealism, as well as his profound revulsion and righteous outrage. Yet, the real horror comes from Peter Sarsgaard’s chillingly calculated Duranty. You will be hard-pressed to find a more unsettling film villain—and he is scrupulously based on a real-life (Pulitzer Prize-winning) figure. Sargaard’s performance and Holland’s depiction of the Holodomor largely overshadow much of the film, but as Brooks, Vanessa Kirby still has some memorable moments, late in the third act.

Screenwriter Andrea Chalupa (who wrote and directed the excellent short documentary, Stalin’s Secret Genocide) shrewdly shapes the well-constructed narrative. This is a tense, suspenseful, and surprisingly literate film. It also blasts out a much-needed cannon-shot of truth. Even to this day, Russian nationalists and Putinists still deny the truth of the Holodomor and the journalistic establishment continues to sweep Duranty’s duplicity under the rug. Yet, Holland and Chalupa do not merely expose journalistic malpractice. They really cut to the heart of the matter when a skeletal Ukrainian woman explains to Jones: “They are killing us. Millions gone. Men came and thought they could replace the natural laws.” (It is not clear from the closing credits who plays her, but her brief work is devastating.)

Mr. Jones vividly illustrates the potential dangers to democracy when journalists start with their ideological conclusions and tailor their reports accordingly. Indeed, the contempt Duranty and Brooks express for the notion of objectivity sounds eerily similar to what we are hearing today. Perhaps Holland is not entirely objective herself, but her direct observation and lived-experience of the Soviet Socialist era informs her filmmaking in very personal and relevant ways. This is a powerful film that leaves viewers in a state of deep disquiet. Very highly recommended, Mr. Jones releases this Friday (6/19) on VOD platforms.

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