REVIEW: Mr. Jones [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 141 minutes
    Release Date: October 25th, 2019 (Poland)
    Studio: Kino Swiat / Samuel Goldwyn Films
    Director(s): Agnieszka Holland
    Writer(s): Andrea Chalupa

I’ve woken up screaming in Barry myself.

It’s not a bad thing to be insane in an insane world. In fact, it’s comfortable. So it’s unsurprising that a room full of old white British men would simply laugh when Gareth Jones (James Norton) tells them a truth their privileged naiveté refuses to let be taken seriously at the start of Agnieszka Holland‘s Mr. Jones. He’s a Foreign Service employee under Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) who found himself on a plane with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, interviewing the two to try and get underneath the propaganda machine the Nazis used to take Germany by storm. How did Jones interpret the session? “The next Great War has already begun.” The sarcastic response he receives exposes the horror that is being sane within that same mad world.

Holland and screenwriter Andrea Chalupa‘s film is therefore very timely when put in context with what’s happening around the world today. The fascist rallies have moved from Germany to the United States and Russia is once again using Ukraine for its whims. There are mainstream media outlets shilling for both sides at the detriment of the common man rather than fact and people decry “fake news” whenever something goes against their beliefs regardless of its objective veracity. And the pigs get even fatter than they had before while the rest of the animals on George Orwell’s farm grow leaner by the day. To stand and tell the truth is to be silenced through arrest or death—just ask Black Lives Matter and their growing list of “coincidental” casualties.

That’s not to say Gareth Jones wants to blow the lid off Joseph Stalin’s Communist experiment. He was simply following the rubles … or lack thereof. Going to the Soviet Union was a last ditch effort to interview the Premier like he did the Führer—one that held zero animosity towards the government’s ideals. He conversely wanted to ensure the Russians were ready to handle Hitler as allies despite their seeming poverty. So hearing how his journalist friend was killed in a robbery and learning that the press was strictly forbidden from ever leaving Moscow obviously raised some red flags. And as Walter Duranty of the New York Times (Peter Sarsgaard) brushed off his curiosity, their star reporter Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) supplied a glimpse beneath the curtain.

Jones hoped to go to Ukraine before Ada mentioned how it was the real story because his mother used to teach English there. He wanted to see the beauty she spoke about with his own eyes. To therefore witness what he does instead (empty villages, dead bodies, and starving children) proves as harrowing an experience for him as it does for us. Holland puts the despair and squalor on-screen in all its darkness with grown adults pushing each other out of the way for an orange peel, crying babies being piled atop a sled of carcasses, and cannibalism for survival. She also shows that the risk Jones took to experience it despite KGB shadows and armed guards cracking the proverbial whip behind malnourished Ukrainians is only the beginning.

This is where Mr. Jones excels. Rather than merely seek to expose its titular character as a selfless hero championing the little guy when economic powers were quick to ignore their existence, the film also looks to make visible the strings being pulled by opportunists for whom we thought we could trust. Duranty isn’t merely a man keeping quiet to further his career, but someone who’s placed himself in the middle of global decisions that he exploits to continue lining his pockets with money. So despite Sarsgaard’s “Man in Moscow” having a very limited role in the whole, what he represents is far vaster in scope. A respected Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turning a blind eye to injustice only means many others of less renown are doing even worse.

While its subject matter works on its own, Chalupa brings in the aforementioned Orwell (Joseph Mawle) as a way to further highlight how a just ideal can be warped under immoral leadership. The film begins with the author sitting down to write Animal Farm—an event that occurred a decade after the events depicted. His inclusion might initially feel tacked on as a result, but Orwell does eventually arrive on-screen to meet Jones and better explain his presence. Those words that he wrote as a critique of Stalin turn his desire to question the breadth of the famine this dictator orchestrated into an example of how fooled the British were in thinking the Soviet Union strove for democratic socialism when it was really tightening its totalitarian grip instead.

That’s the power of propaganda. The more you’re told what you want to hear (lies), the more likely you are to disbelieve dissent (truth). It ultimately doesn’t matter what Jones saw if he’s the only one willing to go on record. He becomes the crackpot conspiracy theorist while the real deceiver uses his bought and paid for mouthpieces to spin a fairy tale that the people want to hear. It’s easier to accept tales of success and prosperity because they are what we crave. If Trump says COVID-19 is the flu, his sycophants fall in line because they don’t want to bear the burden of knowing the opposite is true. If reporters can’t see the dead bodies to expose them, the dead bodies do not exist. History repeats.

[1] (Right) James Norton as Gareth Jones in the drama / bio-pic / thriller MR. JONES, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Robert Palka.
[2] Vanessa Kirby as Ada Brooks in the drama / bio-pic / thriller MR. JONES, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Robert Palka.
[3] (Left) Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty in the drama / bio-pic / thriller MR. JONES, a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Robert Palka.

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