This is the amazing true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who on the eve of WWII went way above and beyond the call of duty when he ditched his Soviet minder and embarked on a life-threatening trip deep into Ukraine to expose the lie that there was no famine there (because things like that don’t happen in Stalin’s workers’ utopia). His discoveries purportedly inspired George Orwell to write the seminal Animal Farm.
James Norton admirably anchors the film in the unassumingly heroic title role, summoning the required mix of naiveté and courage. And special mention is due to Peter Sarsgaard, who has of late become the go-to actor for smarmy villains. Here he plays with chilling effectiveness Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief and Stalin apologist Walter Duranty, representing a black mark for both the Pulitzer organization and the Times. Repeated calls for the award to be rescinded have yet to bear fruit, but the NYT has called his work “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.”
Agnieszka Holland’s film is unnerving, bleak and harrowing, but at the same time instructive, and despite being based in fact, plays like a thriller. Its message against totalitarian deception still resonates today. Make that especially today. Bits are in Russian, so try to catch a subtitled version.