MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, July 17th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The true story of a journalist who risked his life and defied The New York Times to tell the truth about Joseph Stalin’s crimes.
CLIP: What do you want? The story no one is talking about.
Midway through the excellent 2019 film, Mr. Jones, available to rent on streaming platforms, a pretty, young Moscow reporter tells British freelancer Gareth Jones she’s convinced the Soviets are fighting for the real people. She tells herself that burying information on Stalin means restraining Hitler.
She believes she’s a crusader on the right side of history, a moderating force for good. So she declines to follow a few leads, neglects to question some narratives that might undermine the cause.
CLIP: Look who has the agenda now. I don’t have an agenda, unless you call truth an agenda. Yes, but whose truth? The truth. There is only one kind. That’s so naive. I believe in a movement that is bigger than any one person. Look, there are cycles of history just like there are cycles of nature. There’s been nothing but war and depression and now is the chance to rebuild. To fight for the future. The people, the real people, the workers. And that’s what the Soviet’s are doing.I believe that this moment is bigger than any of us.
This woman is one kind of corrupt journalist Jones, played by James Norton, encounters in his efforts to uncover the truth about how Stalin is financing his brave, new industrialized nation. And her idealism contributes to millions of deaths from state-orchestrated starvation.
CLIP: I have no expectations. I just have questions. The numbers just don’t add up. The Kremlin is broke, so how are the Soviets suddenly on a spending spree? Who is providing the finance?
The other kind of journalist Jones meets in the Soviet Union is even less principled, and to this day holds a Pulitzer Prize for the lies he told in the pages of The New York Times.
Brilliantly played by a greasy, snake-eyed Peter Sarsgaard, Walter Duranty is circumspect about the dictator. He knows what Stalin is, but acting as the Times’ man in Moscow affords him wealth, international fame, and opportunities to indulge in debauchery.
CLIP: You don’t drink, you don’t appreciate the gorgeous girls at my party. You are rather dull, Mr. Jones.
A five-minute party scene, more gross than alluring, earns Mr. Jones an R rating, but it’s at least based in fact. Biographies about Duranty go so far as to suggest he participated in Satanic orgies. So perhaps, by that light, the film’s characterization is mild. Still it’s disappointing that the scene includes nudity and drug use, it’s unnecessary and easy to skip. And it’s the only moment of that sort in a film that is otherwise eminently worthy of our attention.
CLIP: You knew, Mr. Duranty. How much is Stalin paying you? What’s keeping you here lying for them? You wouldn’t know the first thing about how difficult it is to report from Moscow today, would you? You’re just a child. It is not the job of a journalist to say how dare you sir? You actually thought you could interview Stalin and make a difference.
Disgusted by Duranty’s cynicism, Jones risks his life to travel to Ukraine to discover for himself what’s happening to the peasant population. The images of starvation he sees there call to mind Old Testament passages like Jeremiah 19:9: “They will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them.”
As far as the real Gareth Jones’ experience went, this sequence is somewhat dramatized. But it is representative of the widespread cannibalism that occurred in the region. So much so the Soviet government printed posters proclaiming, “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.” And chilling folk songs grew up around the practice.
CLIP: [Singing in Russian]
Yet for all the horror, Mr. Jones is ultimately an uplifting film. The fact that producers made it at all, with such an impressive cast, is something of a minor miracle. Jones’ example braces the viewer to champion the cause of candor, whatever the personal cost. It’s a lesson that goes far beyond one profession.
Back in England, the intelligentsia rolls its eyes at Jones’ tedious insistence on contradicting popular opinion, but he does inspire one other writer: a middling novelist by the name of George Orwell.
CLIP: The world is being invaded by monsters but I suppose you don’t want to hear about that. I could be writing romantic novels, novels people actually want to read. Maybe in a different age, I would. But if I tell the story of the monsters through the talking farm animals maybe then you’ll listen. Then you will understand. The future is at stake. So please read carefully, between the lines.
Riches and honor and a long, comfortable life can be had for the price of suppressing truth, going along with the party line, or even just being careful not to look very hard.
Mr. Jones’ unflinching gaze reminds us, doing so, to borrow the Washington Post’s latest tag line, creates the darkness where democracy really dies.