I recommend the movie Mr. Jones, which has generated considerable buzz on the Internet this summer. At the end of this post I list 13 online commentaries about it that I have noticed. This 2019 movie became available on Amazon Prime Video in June.
As I wrote in my previous post The Holodomor, Mr. Jones is about an event that few people know much about, that occurred in a country far away (Ukraine), a long time ago (1932-1933). The person responsible for that terrible famine, Joseph Stalin, has been dead for 67 years.
Furthermore, Mr. Jones is not a U.S. movie. It is a Polish movie directed by Agnieszka Holland. So why is this haunting movie relevant to us here in the U.S. today?
I think one reason this movie resonates with us is because it speaks to our concerns about the quality of the news available to us. I’ve written about this topic before on this blog: on 2/09/2017 and 4/01/2020. One of the themes of Mr. Jones is: Be a skeptical reader of the news. Don’t necessarily trust the media to give you an accurate and balanced view of the world. Even if the medium is the New York Times and the writer won a Pulitzer Prize.
Is the movie Mr. Jones a reliable source of information? Is it good history? The movie is about the Holodomor and the news reporting of that catastrophe, but it is not itself a news report or a history book. Mr. Jones is art. We expect (hope?) that news reports and history books will be factual; that they will not be art. But we do not have the same expectations of complete historical accuracy when it comes to art. Consider Shakespeare’s history plays and Hamilton: An American Musical. They are art, and while they are not completely faithful to history, they are true enough for their purpose.
Nevertheless, from my reading, I think Mr. Jones is pretty good history. A helpful discussion of the history in the movie is here: Liars Go to Hell.
Is Mr. Jones good art? It is a difficult movie to watch because it is so heart-rending, but I found it to be both moving and memorable. From Liars Go to Hell:
The words “must see” are grotesquely overused in movie reviews, but in this case, they are apt. From a compelling James Norton in the title role, to the superb period atmosphere created by Andrea Chalupa (writer) and Agnieszka Holland (director), to a brilliant, understated performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Duranty, Mr. Jones is a riveting experience.
More reviews are listed at the end of this post.
Some reviews are critical of Mr. Jones for the inclusion, as being distracting, of a quasi-love story between Gareth Jones and Walter Duranty’s assistant. But I think the romantic element helps balance the horror of the famine, and makes the story more human.
Vanessa Kirby (pictured) plays the role of Duranty’s assistant. (She also plays Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of the Netflix series The Crown.) Photo: By MTV International – YouTube at 0:20, CC BY 3.0, Link
Some reviews are critical for the inclusion, also as being distracting, of scenes involving George Orwell writing Animal Farm. But I think these reviews miss something. Chapter VII in Animal Farm is about a bitter winter in which the animals starve because their leader (the pig Napoleon, representing Stalin) sold grain and other farm products to finance construction of a windmill. This episode in Animal Farm eerily parallels the famine of the Holodomor, which was caused by Stalin selling grain from Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, to finance massive industrialization projects. Animal Farm even discusses the news reporting about the starvation on the farm. From page 85 in my daughter’s paperback edition (pictured):
It was vitally necessary to conceal this fact [the starvation] from the outside world.
George Orwell (1903-1950) and Gareth Jones (1905-1935) may have known each other. And the farmer in Animal Farm is named Mr. Jones. It is quite likely that the life and reporting of Gareth Jones influenced the writing of Animal Farm.
I re-read Animal Farm as a result of watching Mr. Jones. I had not read it since high school or perhaps earlier. It is a very different experience reading this book as an adult, and I recommend it to everyone. Although published in 1945 at the close of World War II, its warnings about communism and totalitarianism are timeless.
Gareth Jones was murdered in China in 1935, one day before his 30th birthday, and ten years before Animal Farm was published. See Gareth Jones in Wikipedia for what is known about his murder. It is fitting and proper that his memory has been brought to our attention in an extraordinary work of art, which you can find on Amazon Prime Video at this link: Mr. Jones.
As noted above, Mr. Jones has generated considerable buzz on the Internet this summer. Following are online commentaries about it that I have found:
In chronological order
The New Criterion 6/03/2020 Fake news on film
New York Times 6/18/2020 ‘Mr. Jones’ Review: Bearing Witness to Stalin’s Evil
Hollywood in Toto 6/18/2020 ‘Mr. Jones’ Speaks Directly to Our Fake News Age
New Yorker 6/19/2020 “Mr. Jones” Remembers When Stalin Weaponized Famine
New York Daily News 6/22/2020 Agnieszka Holland and Peter Sarsgaard’s thriller ‘Mr. Jones’ highlights ‘unbearable’ crime ‘no one knows about’
National Review 7/02/2020 Stalin, Famine, and the New York Times
UnHerd 7/22/2020 A cautionary tale for today’s ‘woke’ movement
First Things 7/23/2020 Liars Go to Hell
Wall Street Journal 7/27/2020 Stalin’s Man at the New York Times
Epoch Times 7/30/2020 Agnieszka Holland’s ‘Mr. Jones’: The Press and Stalin’s Holodomor
Washington Post 7/31/2020 ‘Mr. Jones’ and the deadly consequences of shoddy journalism
UPDATE 8/27/2020: The first comment (thank you!) led to four additional interesting articles at Ukraine Today – “Independent News & Views from Ukraine.”
The following article dated 12/18/2019 is about Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman who wrote about the Holodomor even before Gareth Jones:
The following article is about a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council on 6/22/2020. Moderator Anne Applebaum, author of Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017) and other books, interviewed Agnieszka Holland and Andrea Chalupa, the director and scriptwriter, respectively, of Mr. Jones:
The excellent 1-hour Zoom video is here: Mr. Jones: Unmasking the cult of Stalin.
The following article is about the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv (or Kiev), where a street is being named in honor of Gareth Jones:
The following article dated 7/28/2020 is by Serhii Plokhii, professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. This is a superb discussion of the history in Mr. Jones: