A film about a Western liberal journalist who exposes Russian crimes and fake news seems like a plot made for every self-satisfied “centrist dad”. But Mr Jones, a new historical drama, tells a story of when writing about the Russian state’s murder of seven million people meant challenging the mainstream.
Gareth Jones—James Norton—a Welsh journalist, has just made his name by interviewing Adolf Hitler in 1933. He is painfully right-on, teetotal and sees himself as a guardian of “liberal values”.
Jones manages to get a visa to Joseph Stalin’s Russia, where a journalist friend has told him there’s a big story in Ukraine.
At the plush Metropol Hotel, Western journalists drink, shoot heroin at parties, and file copy of industrial breakthroughs. The creepy Walter Duranty—Peter Sarsgaard—The New York Times newspaper’s bureau chief, leads this set of debauchery and denial.
Determined to find the truth, Jones travels illegally into Ukraine. He finds a society brutalised by famine—something the film doesn’t shy away from showing in its full horror through a series of haunting scenes.
The famine Jones found was the product of a society in the grip of Stalin’s counter-revolution.
The regime forced through industrialisation in a terrifically short time in order to catch up and compete with other imperialist powers in the West.
Political repression of peasants, forced collectivisation of land and droughts led to a number of famines across Russia in 1932-33.
After he leaves Russia, Jones’ reports are discredited, with Duranty at the head of the denials.
The majority of the left defended Stalin as a continuation of the Russian Revolution of 1917, when ordinary people had seized power.
Duranty is presented as one of these, saying, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.”
But this portrayal isn’t quite true.Duranty looked down on Russians as an “Asiatic” people suited to authoritarian rule and saw Stalin as a statesman the West should do business with.
His stories of Russian industrial achievements were aimed at normalising diplomatic relations—which formally happened in 1933.
Mr Jones could have been a smug defence of liberal journalism—but it tells a story much better than that.