When narrative journalism kills: Mr. Jones film review

When narrative journalism kills: Mr. Jones film review

“The Kremlin is broke,” a young analyst tells British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, “so how are the Soviets suddenly on a spending spree?” Thus begins the world-changing quest of the short-lived Gareth Jones, who uncovered the first of many communist atrocities — as well as the perils of narrative journalism. The little-heralded film Mr. Jones finally got its American release in streaming and Blu-Ray almost as quietly as the Holodomor occurred, and one suspects for the same reasons — it makes the wrong people look bad by telling the truth.

Mr. Jones offers a look into a shameful episode of history in which the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin imposed a deliberate policy of genocide in Ukraine. Called the Holodomor by Ukrainians, Stalin deliberately killed millions by starvation in the breadbasket of Europe by using its grain for economic leverage. Jones (James Norton), an idealistic young man who initially saw the Soviet Union as a counterweight to the Nazis, wanted to find out the answer to the economic conundrum he had discovered in Stalin’s Russia. What he found was a horror, and more than that — a horror deliberately covered up by a corrupt press, especially in the form of the now-reviled New York Times reporter Walter Duranty.

Some mild spoilers follow.

The film starts out with stylish flairs, but those slowly fade away the closer Jones gets to the truth. It turns into a horror film in the second half, as Jones wanders through the Ukrainian hellscape and nearly succumbs to it himself. Director Agnieszka Holland frames Mr. Jones with the presence of George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), who started off as a believer in the Soviet experiment but becomes disillusioned by Jones’ reporting. The film opens with readings from Animal Farm, which continue throughout the film to its conclusion. (The film description on Amazon claims Jones’ story inspired Orwell to write the book.)

This brilliantly sets off the moral arc of Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), who has sold out to the Soviets. Duranty knows well enough what is happening in Ukraine, but believes more in the Soviet experiment than what it actually produces. When Jones wants to go public with the famine, Duranty argues that the Soviets will “transform mankind,” and a famine or two along the way is a small price to pay. Duranty then attempts to force his associate Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) to back his denials, which are already running in the New York Times, which presents yet another angle to the moral dilemma of narrative journalism.

Duranty chose narrative over truth — and has become the poster boy for the former. Jones chose truth over narrative. How did he get repaid?

If nothing else, Mr. Jones deserves credit for lifting Jones’ name above that of the reviled Duranty, whose Pulitzer Prize still remains in effect. However, the film has many aspects to recommend it — the story, the direction, and stellar performances from Norton, Sarsgaard, and maybe especially Kirby. It is a stirring reminder of the atrocities of the Soviets and how their system worked, and what happened when western media played along because it suited them.

Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Mr. Jones gets a 4:

  • 4 – Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD/virtual copy
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

It appears Mr. Jones does not have an MPAA rating, but I’d put it at a PG-13 or perhaps an R. It contains brief nudity, a brief scene of drug use, violence (mostly implied), and the horrific scenes of the famine. It’s too intense for younger viewers, but older teens should be able to handle it. At the moment, it’s only available for rent through Vudu; otherwise, you’ll have to buy it, as I did — and it’s worth the price.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023