Thankfully, Holland doesn’t dwell on this kick-off for too long and instead promptly places us in the room where Jones gets laughed at by a group of high-ranking British government officials that casually dismisses his warnings about Hitler and an impending attack from the Germans. But being a foreign affairs advisor, Jones manages to pull enough strings to land himself on an assignment to the Soviet Union to interview Stalin and see the country sold to the Western world as an economic utopia, for himself.
A pair of key figures enter the story during Jones’s escapades in Moscow: the slimy New York Times expat Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard, delivering a suitably sleazy performance) who often throws extravagant, heroin-infused parties and dispatches Soviet-favoring lies for personal gain and an underutilized but terrific Vanessa Kirby’s Ada Brooks, a guarded journalist caught in the trenches.
Swiftly navigating and confronting various crooked machinations in Moscow, including shady powers who try to prevent him from venturing to other parts of the country, Jones finally makes his way to Ukraine via dangerous means, after learning about the widespread, government-formed hunger wiping out the region’s people. This devastating chapter is when Holland’s film veers into survival territory in earnest, taking the viewers on a frosty, bone-chilling ride through the famine-stricken countryside on both trains and foot. The dark-hued, reflection and shadow-heavy cinematography of Tomasz Naumiuk also switches gears at this stage, assuming an existential, dreamy (or rather, nightmarish) Andrei Tarkovsky-esque look. As she steers her camera across open snowy grounds, capturing occasional dead bodies and helpless children who still swear their allegiance to the Soviet Union, Holland aggressively quiets her colors down to an almost black-and-white palette, making the occasional shades of a fire or piece of fruit pop with purpose.
While “Mr. Jones” isn’t close to being in the same league as great journalism films such as “All The President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” it takes a noble page from their book in not delivering a conclusive ending. Instead, it leaves things at a place where the work to uncover “only one version of the truth” (as often cited by characters in the film) seems to be just beginning. This might not be the ultimate movie to honor the idealistic legacy of Gareth Jones, but it’s a dignified one all the same, with an uncompromising moral compass.
Available on digital platforms today, 6/19.