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Mr. Jones - in the Service of Truth. A Biographical Thriller by Agnieszka Holland

Author: Katarzyna Litak, M.D.

This year, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF40) commemorated its 40th anniversary by paying tribute to Al Milgrom, the visionary behind its inception. In 1962, Milgrom established the University Film Society, which laid the foundation for what is now known as the MSP Film Society. Throughout the years, Milgrom's passion and dedication have contributed to the festival's growth and success.

Three acclaimed movies by Agnieszka Holland, one of Milgrom's favorite directors, were showcased as part of the tribute. The films included Europa, Europa from 1990, which garnered international acclaim, as well as her newest work, Charlatan, released in 2020 and winner of five Czech Lion Awards. Additionally, Mr. Jones, a film from 2019 that received accolades at the 2020 Palm Springs International Festival, was also screened, further highlighting Holland's remarkable talent and impact on the cinematic world.

Through this tribute, MSPIFF40 honored Al Milgrom's significant contributions to the film festival and celebrated the artistry of Agnieszka Holland, showcasing her exceptional films to captivated audiences.

Mr. Jones, a quasi-documentary historical drama with elements of a spy movie, takes viewers on a gripping journey that delves into the dark realities of the Soviet regime. The film offers unexpected twists and turns, immersing audiences in a chilling account of the regime's ruthlessness and the far-reaching effects of its expert propaganda machine.

As the story unfolds, Mr. Jones evolves into an exploration of the essence of honest journalism and the pursuit of truth, unswayed by vested interests and political agendas. It sheds light on the power of information and the inherent dangers of disinformation and fake news, which remain highly relevant in today's world.

Through its compelling narrative, Mr. Jones prompts reflection on the importance of discerning the truth amidst a backdrop of manipulation and hidden agendas. The film serves as a stark reminder of the enduring impact of propaganda and the vital role that honest journalism plays in exposing the workings of oppressive regimes.

With its thought-provoking themes, Mr. Jones provides a riveting cinematic experience that leaves audiences contemplating the significance of truth and the dangers of misinformation in our society.

Set against the backdrop of Europe in the 1930s, during Hitler's rise to power and Stalinist Soviet Russia's quest for global dominance, Mr. Jones takes viewers on a harrowing journey. What initially begins as a spirited and somewhat naive adventure for Gareth Jones, a young and idealistic journalist, quickly turns into a nightmarish ordeal.

As Jones delves deeper into the heart of the Soviet Union, he becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the unimaginable scale of evil that he witnesses. His path leads him to the famine-stricken lands of Ukraine, where he uncovers the brutal realities of Stalin's rule and the devastating impact it has on the lives of its people. These shocking discoveries shed light on the atrocities committed under Stalin's regime and may have inspired George Orwell's seminal novel, Animal Farm.

Through Jones' experiences, the film exposes the stark contrast between the idealistic vision of a utopian society projected by Soviet propaganda and the harsh realities faced by those living under its rule. It explores the depths of human suffering and the moral complexities of navigating through a world driven by political ideologies and unchecked power.

Mr. Jones serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of speaking truth to power and exposing the dark underbelly of oppressive regimes. It highlights the courage and resilience of individuals like Gareth Jones, who risked everything to reveal the truth and shed light on the injustices being perpetrated. With its historical context and powerful storytelling, the film paints a vivid portrait of a pivotal moment in history, uncovering the horrors of Stalinist Russia and its lasting impact on the world.

In the film Mr. Jones, the main character starkly contrasts the supporting character Walter Duranty, who is based on the real-life figure of the same name. Duranty, a renowned journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his coverage of the Soviet Union, played a significant role in propagating Soviet propaganda and concealing the true extent of the devastating famine that claimed millions of lives.

The portrayal of Duranty in the film highlights his tragic and morally compromised character. Despite his journalistic skills and connections, Duranty chose to serve as a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, contributing to the mask that hid the extermination operations and immense suffering caused by the Great Famine.

It is worth noting that in 2003, the New York Times, Duranty's employer, acknowledged the significant shortcomings of his reporting, describing it as "some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper." This admission acknowledges the detrimental impact of Duranty's articles in perpetuating a false narrative and downplaying the severity of the famine.

The inclusion of Duranty's character in Mr. Jones serves as a reminder of the power of media and the responsibility journalists bear in accurately portraying events and reporting the truth. It sheds light on the ethical dilemmas faced by journalists and the consequences of compromising journalistic integrity in the face of political pressures.

By juxtaposing the main character's pursuit of truth and the tragic role played by Duranty, the film emphasizes the importance of holding journalists accountable for their reporting and the far-reaching consequences that can result from spreading misinformation and propaganda.

The minimalist form of Agnieszka Holland's cinematography, especially in the middle part of the film, where our hero roams around Ukrainian villages affected by the Great Famine (or Holodomor), enhances and intensifies the experience without unnecessary pathos or sentimentality. The haunting images will remain in the viewers' memory for long. Mr. Jones is certainly one of Agnieszka Holland’s most important films and makes us think about how false information can manipulate and deceive societies and political elites.

Agnieszka Holland's minimalist approach to cinematography in Mr. Jones, particularly during the protagonist's exploration of the Ukrainian villages impacted by the Holodomor, heightens and intensifies the viewer's experience. The film avoids unnecessary pathos or sentimentality, instead focusing on creating haunting and memorable imagery that lingers long after the movie ends. Through Holland's careful craftsmanship, the audience is immersed in the harsh realities of the Holodomor and confronted with the devastating consequences of famine and state-sponsored deception. The power of the film lies in its ability to provoke thought and reflection on how societies and political elites can be manipulated and deceived by disseminating false information.

Holland's masterful execution of the film's visual style allows the story to resonate deeply with viewers, leaving a lasting impression and prompting a critical examination of the ways in which information can be weaponized and manipulated for political gain. In this regard, Mr. Jones stands as one of Agnieszka Holland's most significant films, showcasing her ability to engage audiences on both an emotional and intellectual level while raising awareness about the complexities of truth and the manipulation of information in society.

Agnieszka Holland, born in Warsaw in 1948, has a personal history deeply influenced by the tumultuous events of the 20th century. Her family's experiences during World War II, with her grandparents falling victim to the Holocaust and her mother's involvement in the Warsaw uprising, shaped her perspective and artistic sensibilities. In 1967, Holland ventured to Czechoslovakia to pursue her studies at the Prague Film Academy (FAMU). It was during this time that she witnessed the hopeful period known as the Prague Spring, a time of political liberalization. However, her involvement with anti-Soviet opposition led to her arrest and imprisonment, highlighting the risks associated with expressing dissent under communist rule. When martial law was imposed in Poland in December 1981, Holland was in Sweden. Faced with the repressive political climate, she decided not to return to communist-controlled Poland. Since then, she has resided in multiple countries, including Poland, France, and the United States, where she continues to work and contribute to the film industry. Holland's talent and dedication have earned her recognition on the international stage, as evidenced by her three Oscar nominations. Her films often explore complex themes, historical events, and societal issues, reflecting her own background and experiences. Holland has established herself as a highly respected and influential filmmaker through her work, using her artistry to shed light on important stories and challenge societal norms.

More about Agnieszka Holland, see: Grzegorz Litynski “Agnieszka Holland became the President of the European Film Academy”, MPMS website, December 31, 2020:

Further reading:

MSPIFF Milgrom Tribute

Serhii Plokhii “The movie exposes the fake news campaign behind Stalin's Ukrainian genocide.” July 27, 2020.

Askold Krushelnycky “Ukrainians want pro-Stalin writer stripped of Pulitzer”, The Guardian, May 4, 2003

New York Times Statement About 1932 Pulitzer Prize Awarded to Walter Duranty

The Holodomor Museum


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