Gareth Jones, Foreign Affairs Adviser to the British MP (and former prime minister, I take it), David Lloyd George, makes a room full of stuffy MPs laugh when he tells them they’re already at war. They roll their eyes at him, but he’s not wrong. Mr. Jones (James Norton) has a knack for allowing very little to escape his observation. Out of his government position, Jones returns to freelance journalism and he knows just where to go: the Soviet Union.
It’s the early 1930s and Mr. Jones is very suspicious of the Soviet Union’s boasting over the radio about its spending spree. What is funding all these new improvements? Gareth Jones wants to know. But upon arrival he finds journalists very thoroughly and very strictly quarantined to Moscow. Things are plentiful, the people seem well, but none of the other journalists seem bothered by the carefully curated perspective, and none are digging deeper. Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), the Pulitzer-prize winning Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times, is pointedly unperturbed. Mr. Jones isn’t buying it, and with a little help from Duranty’s assistant, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), he’s able to sneak out of the city. Everywhere he went, he found famine, vast and severe. Man-made famine; in fact, man-made genocide.
Now called the Holodomor, a term which emphasizes the famine’s intentional aspects such as rejection of outside aid, confiscation of household food, and restriction of population movement. Several million Ukrainians died. At the time, Jones was threatened by Soviet authorities to smother his reports. The world, still sympathetic to Bolshevism, wasn’t ready to hear the truth. He broke the news in the western media, and they largely rejected it. The Kremlin denied it, as did their puppet Duranty. And yet Jones pursued that truth at great risk to himself.
Early on in the film, there was a shot of sunlight filtered through a sow’s ear, and I thought “God, this is going to be unbearably beautiful, isn’t it?” Credit to cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk, of course, but in the end it wasn’t so much unbearable as welcome and necessary. It’s not just the unyielding parade of suffering and starvation, it’s the somewhat disjointed way the story is told. Director Agnieszka Holland preserves human horror better than most, perhaps better than any, but she’s less adept at telling Gareth Jones’s story in a cohesive manner. There may be room for improvement, or at least a tightening of the reins, but like Jones himself, Holland’s work reminds us of how important it is to witness, and to remember.