It’s 1934 and Gareth Jones (James Norton), journalist and foreign adviser to British prime minister Lloyd George, is trying to convince a room full of stuffed shirts with fancy government titles that Adolf Hitler is looking to wage war in Europe, to build a thousand-year Reich. Jones should know. Somewhat famous for having interviewed Der Führer, Jones also heard as much from Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels’ own mouth. The men in the room laugh at the sheer puerility of it. The Germans, after all, have their own problems. “Herr Hitler will soon learn that there is a great deal of difference between holding a rally and running a country.”
Jones soon finds himself out of a job owing to budget cuts. It’s the Depression, after all. But History will not let him go. Glued to a radio broadcast of Stalin crowing about the Soviet Union’s achievements—“We did not have a tractor industry. Now we have one. We did not have an automobile industry. Now we have one. We did not have a tank industry. Now we have one”—Jones can’t help but wonder where Stalin is getting all this money. After all, the ruble is worthless. “Meanwhile, the Soviets are having a spending spree.”
Jones employs some double-talk to get a visa to go to Moscow, where he hopes to interview Josef Stalin, just as he did Hitler. Once there, Jones immediately seeks out Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), The New York Times’ Man in Moscow, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the amazing strides the USSR has made in riding History to an egalitarian Utopia. Duranty informs Jones that his journalist friend, Paul Kleb, whom Jones had been hoping to hook up with, has been murdered in a robbery. Shaken but not stirred, Jones informs Duranty know that he is in Moscow for one reason: to interview Stalin and find out where he is getting the money to build on the scale that he is. “The numbers just don’t add up.”
“Grain is Stalin’s gold,” Duranty lets slip.
Jones is confirmed in his suspicions that Kleb was murdered after he meets up with a German journalist, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), who knew Kleb. Brooks, while wary of Stalin, nevertheless sees the Soviet experiment as a great one, especially in relation to the havoc Hitler is wreaking in her homeland. It soon becomes clear to Jones that Ukraine is the story, that Ukraine is where Stalin is getting his “gold” and that Kleb found out and paid for this knowledge dearly.
Jones cons a Soviet diplomat into allowing him to travel to Ukraine by playing on Soviet pride. Jones flatters the man by playing up a British-Soviet alliance in the inevitable coming war with Germany, but questions Soviet readiness to fight Hitler on an eastern front. Incensed, the diplomat invites Jones to see for himself the superiority of Soviet engineering and manufacturing by visiting Soviet factories . . . in Ukraine. But Jones gives his Soviet-approved guide the slip, determined to investigate the story in Ukraine without some museum docent making sure he doesn’t walk down the wrong corridor or miss the necessary “facts.” Once free from his keeper, Jones sees sacks and sacks of wheat being hauled onto carts by starving villagers. He sees tumbrils of dead Ukrainians being pushed through the snow by half-dead peasants. He watches as children eat tree bark as their family farmland is being ripped from beneath them. Jones realizes just how Stalin is getting his “gold.” He’s stealing it, and starving millions of Ukrainians in the process. “Men came and thought they could replace the natural laws,” one hollow-cheeked Ukrainian tells Jones.
It’s not long before Jones is caught by Soviet police for roaming freely and thrown in jail, along with six British engineers accused of spying on Soviet factories. Duranty manages to run interference and get Jones released, on the condition that, once back in Britain, Jones informs a curious public that there is no famine in Ukraine and that the great Soviet collectivist experiment is being carried out with remarkable efficiency and success. Otherwise, the six British engineers, still being held in a Soviet prison, will be killed.
Once home, Jones is invited to lunch with a Mr. Eric Blair, aka George Orwell. He tells the future author of Nineteen Eighty-Four that should he reveal to the world what he knows, the British engineers will be killed, but also millions of lives will be saved. What is he to do? Orwell is quick to respond: “Speak the truth, regardless of the consequences.”
And so he does. But a counter-narrative is quickly concocted in Moscow, care of Mr. Duranty, and Jones soon finds himself the odd man out again. No one believes his famine claims. He’s painted by reports coming out of Moscow by reputedly reliable sources as a fantasist, as delusional. His career in tatters, Jones returns to his native Wales and moves in with his father. While working on a small Welsh paper for the “Culture” section (his editor won’t let him near politics or foreign affairs), he sees an opportunity to redeem his reputation. Jones learns that Willian Randoph Hearst, the American publishing giant (and inspiration for George Foster Kane of Citizen Kane fame) is vacationing nearby. He barges into the Hearst summer estate and gets 30 seconds to tell his story. Jones insists to Hearst that he knows what he saw in Ukraine, and that Paul Kleb knew about the famine, too. Hearst had been trying to get Jones’ friend Kleb to work for his papers for some time and always suspected that the “robbery” story was a fabrication, encouraging suspicions that the miracle of the Soviet Union may be more legend than fact. Hearst rather likes the idea of taking on the Times, and the Times’ Man in Moscow, Duranty, by pushing the famine story.
And so Hearst runs with it, and sticks by Jones despite outrage from both Moscow and the prime minister, who has always been wary of angering the Soviets at a time of great economic distress.
Mr. Jones’ tenacity did more than deliver the truth about Stalin’s genocide. It also inspired George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, the composition of which acts as a framing device for the film. “I wanted to tell a story that could easily be understood by anyone,” says Orwell in voiceover as he types away. “A story so simple even a child could understand it. The truth was too strange to tell any other way.” The truth of the Russian devastation of Ukraine.
So, yes, the truth finally willed out, but only because a rich and ambitious newspaperman was eager to duke it out with the “paper of record.” It also came at a great price to the truth teller. While reporting in Inner Mongolia the very next year, Jones was kidnapped. “Bandits” was the official story. But as it turned out, Jones’ guide was connected to Soviet police, and the Welsh reporter was murdered shortly thereafter, one day before his 30th birthday, the film’s closing title cards say. Duranty, on the other hand, died in 1957, age 73, in Florida. Oh, and his Pulitzer was never rescinded. (It’s been “investigated” a couple of times, but the committee has always ruled to leave things as they are, Duranty’s work having been lionized “in a different era and under different circumstances,” whatever that means.) Such lords of legitimacy as the Pulitzer Committee can’t afford to admit fallibility, after all, or who would trust their judgment in the future? In fact, in its 105-year-history, the committee has never once revoked an award. The closest it came was in 1981, when Janet Cooke declined her award, admitting she made up her heart-wrenching story of an 8-year-old heroin addict. Not all frauds are without a conscience.
Mr. Jones was directed by Oscar winner Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa), who makes sure from opening to closing credits there is no gray area for the truth to flail in. We know who the good guys and the bad guys are. In this frightful tale (challenged, it should be noted, by Gareth Jones’ real-world family for supposed inaccuracies, and for capitalizing on their own original research), Duranty is portrayed as decadent, Weimar-worthy scum, regardless of his supposed “true faith” communism, taking money from Stalin to pump pro-Soviet propaganda into the U.S. to encourage FDR to end the economic boycott and begin trading with and investing in the USSR. And he succeeds, because Roosevelt was many things, but savvy when it came to Stalin was never one of them.
And Jones? Jones is depicted as part realist, part idealist. He knew what he had seen with his own eyes, and no amount of gainsaying or threats of career suicide would make him deny it, just as he knew what he heard from Goebbels—war was coming. But he also nurtured high professional ideals. “Journalism is a noble profession,” he tells Ada Brooks. “We don’t take sides.”
Different time. Different world. Journalists are out of a job these days if they don’t take sides, suspected of any manner of -ism or -phobia. And this president has no illusions about the man in Moscow or his intentions or his crimes. (About the regimes in Iran and Venezuela is anyone’s guess, however.) And we all know about China and the CCP’s ongoing murderous campaign to reprogram and enslave all who do not incarnate Party dogma. The problem today isn’t getting a true picture of what’s going on in these dictatorships. It’s what, if anything, we can do about it in a truly global economy. The answer, apparently, is write mean tweets, fire Russian opera singers, shutter McDonald’s, and hope for the best.
In a meeting last week, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko “told Putin that both of them were from Soviet generations which had endured sanctions and that the Soviet Union had developed well.
“‘You are right,’ Putin said. The Soviet Union lived all the time under sanctions but it developed and made colossal achievements.”
Implying, of course, that Russia will, too.
I hope some intrepid reporter somewhere sticks the story and finds out where, finally, Putin gets the money to do so.