Stalin, Famine, and the New York Times

Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty in Mr. Jones. (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Mr. Jones tells the truth about Moscow’s man at the Paper of Record.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE ‘T he world is being invaded by monsters, but I suppose you don’t want to hear about that,” Both clauses of that sentence are devastatingly true: The reference is equally to the horrors of the Soviet Union’s mass murders — and to the West’s determination to turn its back to the monstrosity. The speaker is George Orwell; the subject is Stalinism. Orwell is preparing to write a book called Animal Farm in which the farmer is named Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones, it turns out, is also the name of an Orwell acquaintance who might have been an inspiration in his writing: Jones is a Welsh reporter, first name Gareth, who is our vantage point for the Stalin-engineered Ukraine famine of the 1930s that amounted to the state-ordered murder of more than three million people by seizing the region’s grain. At the outset of the film Mr. Jones (which is just out via VOD services) is seen pleading to a team of politicos led by David Lloyd George, a former British prime minister in 1933. Jones (played with a combination of determination and disbelief by James Norton) advises the Brits that Herr Hitler, whom he has recently interviewed, has already started a war on western civilization and that a similar threat is building in the Soviet Union. Guffaws greet everything Jones says, and he gets the sack from Lloyd George. “It is me you need, I’m the only one who tells you the truth,” Jones tells the grand old man, but the ex-premier isn’t interested. So Jones goes to Moscow anyway, pretending he has Lloyd George’s blessing.

The genius move of this scathing and suspenseful film by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland (who was once arrested by the Soviets, during the Prague Spring) is in whom it selects to be the menacing, dead-eyed apparatchik with a cold determination to search out and destroy any threats to the regime: He is none other than Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s man in Moscow, or rather Moscow’s man at the New York Times. Duranty is portrayed by one of the screen’s true masters of all things snaky and slimy, Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard, Holland, and screenwriter Andrea Chalupa perform such a vicious act of celluloid vivisection on Duranty that Mr. Jones may restore your faith in movies.

Duranty, the one-legged Anglo-American granddaddy of fake news, was, as the film makes vividly clear, not a lazy hack who stuck with a comfy narrative because it was the easiest thing to do (like most journos) or a cynic who thinks all sides stand equal in their sins (like many other journos). He wasn’t even a useful idiot. He was, rather, an active and fervent defender of an evil regime and consequently a deeply evil man himself. Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1931 reports defending Stalin under such headlines as “Stalinism Solving Minorities Problem” and “Red Army is Held No Menace to Peace.” After he said reports of a famine were “an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” FDR granted recognition to the USSR. This was back in the days when Pulitzers were being handed out not for advancing public knowledge but for setting fire to the facts in order to light a torch for far-left propaganda. Thank heavens that never happens anymore.

Where did those reports of famine come from, the reports that Duranty so eagerly, if mendaciously, debunked? From Mr. Gareth Jones. While Duranty is hosting Caligulan soirees in Moscow, where his beautiful associate (Vanessa Kirby) mostly shares his view that the great historical project of socialism is more important than being boringly truthful in today’s news cycle, Jones finds both the partying and the Party to be contemptible. He shakes off his official minder (in a sequence that greatly exaggerates the bravado of what Jones actually did, which was simply to buy a train ticket to one station but get off early) and ventures out to Ukraine by himself to see whether Stalin’s claims of happy peasants hold up. A long, grueling, nearly wordless section of the film takes us into the horrors of the genocidal Holodomor, where villages have been vacated, corpses lie unclaimed on the ground and children asked where they got the meat they are eating answer, “Our big brother.” Oh, your brother is a hunter, then? No answer.

Back in Moscow, Duranty shrugs at all this: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” he says, speaking for all of the genocidal murderers who viewed people as brunch. Duranty really did publish this grotesque cliche (already in common use at the time) in the March 31, 1933, edition of the Times. He and Mr. Jones faced two very different fates after the events depicted in this film; one of them was murdered in 1935 and the other died in Orlando, Fla., at a ripe old age. You can probably guess which is which. To this day, Mr. Jones is all but unknown and his courage is unsung by his inky heirs, whereas Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize remains on the books even after a thousand other things have been canceled. Meanwhile, Mr. Jones joins the unconscionably brief list of brutally honest films about Communism.

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