Reviewed by Eric Collins
Mission to Moscow, directed by Michael Curtiz and produced by Warner Bros. Studios, is a movie based on the life of US ambassador Joseph E. Davies when he was assigned to the Soviet Union by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from November 1936 to June 1938.
The movie is based on the diary of ambassador Davies, which bears the same name as the movie. The diary and the film chronicle the experience of Davies and his family while working as a diplomat for the United States. An important note to remember is that Mr. Davies had complete control over the dialogue of the film. As such, there is no dialogue present in the movie that Mr. Davies would not agree with. We should therefore take the movie as an accurate, or at least honest, depiction of Mr. Davies’s viewpoints.
After so many years of American corporations depicting the USSR and Stalin as evil entities, it’s refreshing to see an accurate portrayal of both the Soviet government and its foreign policy. Something that should be considered is that ambassador Davies and his pro-capitalist sentiments were expressed in the beginning of the film itself. At no point does Mr. Davies declare his belief in socialism, in any form.
The film itself begins with Mr. Davies being summoned by President FDR, to the White House. FDR assigns him with the mission of going to Moscow in order to see how much support there was for the communist regime in the Soviet Union at the time. He also wanted to see whether the support for the Stalin regime was genuine for the Soviet people, so that if the US would have to go to war against Nazi Germany the Soviets could be relied upon to be a good ally.
After a brief detour in Nazi Germany, ambassador Davies made his way across the Polish border into the Soviet Union where he was greeted by Soviet officials. This exchange marks one of the most memorable moments in the movie for me. Upon seeing a woman in the engine cabin of a train, Mr. Davies’s chauffer and servant questions if they actually allow women in the cabin with the engineers. A Soviet man responds that she is the engineer!
In fact, the movie takes time to remind us about the differences in the roles of women in the US and the USSR. Mr. Davies’s wife takes a tour of a perfume factory which is managed by the wife of Vyacheslav Molotov. This scene in the factory shows that they’re both still women, but that the role of women is not just to look and smell beautiful but that they are equal with men in intelligence and capabilities, as the wife runs an entire factory—something which is not common in the US. They remark about the particulars of women in the workforce (and the necessities of items like perfume), but they both agree that they share more in common than their first impressions led them to believe.
Another memorable moment concerning the role of women in the workforce takes place when Mr. Davies visits a coal mine and talks to a female miner. They exchange some thoughts and Mr. Davies quips about how in America women are only placed underground when it’s time to bury them. They laugh, and the entire exchange is very lighthearted and fun.
On his tour of the Soviet Union, Mr. Davies visits a multitude of places, factories, mines and oil drilling sites. Some of those places were even operated by American engineers which had immigrated to the Soviet Union during The Great Depression (as they could not find jobs in the US). When questioned by the American ambassador about how Soviet managers acquired managerial positions at such a young age, the whimsical reply was “he worked for it!”.
However, the movie is not just a tour of factories and workhouses. In one scene, the ambassador’s family are entertained at a formal government ball where worldwide diplomats are hosted. This ball is important, as it reveals a nefarious conspiracy. The Trotskyites at the ball spend a lot of time talking to the diplomats from the Axis powers and connections with them appear to be established.
The most serious scene deals with the Moscow Trials. The movie leads up to this moment by showing the reasons why fifth columnists of the Soviet government went on trial, mainly sabotage. However, the trial itself reveals some very disturbing and crucial information about why the Trotskyites were willing conspirators. Their goal was to weaken the Soviets and stage a coup with the help of Nazi Germany—with Trotsky and Bukharin as the leaders.
Today, Soviet documents have become increasingly accepted as evidence regarding the trials. In the eyes of Mr. Davies, a trial lawyer himself, the trials were some of the fairest he had ever seen. His word is that of an outside observer who holds no stake in the whole affair. This fact makes his analysis easier to accept for those who believe (falsely) in the unfairness of the trials.
There are, however, some problems with how the trials are portrayed. The trial of Mikhail Tukhachevsky is shown to take place the same time as Nikolai Bukharin, which is false as their trials took place in June 1937 and March 1938, respectively. However, considering the time limit of the movie, there was no room for the producers to add more time for the sake of accuracy. So, the two trials are presented as a single event. While I believe this does not have a profound outcome on how the trials are portrayed, or their efficacy, it is nonetheless an error that must be stated and corrected.
Reporting back to America, the ambassador gives a speech at Madison Square Garden in New York and rapid-fire style debunks a multitude of anti-Soviet myths and talking points that were common at the time—and even now. The experiences of the ambassador from his entire trip to the Soviet Union are used as reasonings and justifications in his final closing speech, tying the whole thing together nicely. Had he not gone to the Soviet Union, he would not have had these convictions. The movie then ends, gracefully, with an emotional appeal for peace on Earth.
“Mission to Moscow” sets out to give the honest experiences of ambassador Joseph E. Davies from his mission to the Soviet Union before World War Two. Despite some chronological inaccuracies, the movie achieves this goal admirably. The movie itself is quite entertaining, and when divorced of any political meaning, still gives good insight into the life of the average Soviet citizen during that time. The movie should be viewed, if for no other reasons, than for its ability to provide a glimpse of the storied career of President FDR’s ambassador to the Soviet Union before World War Two.