It’s an odd thing to hear the words “hopeful” and “Paul Greengrass” in the same sentence, but if 2020 has proven anything, it’s that one should start expecting the unexpected as a matter of fact for at least the next few years. Greengrass, he of United 93 and Bourne fame, is a cinematic realist in both style in substance: His films are defined as much by realpolitik as much as they are shaky-cam, and his latest film, News of the World, is a fundamental break with his prior tradition. For one, it’s a western, one that sees him reunite with his Captain Phillips star, Tom Hanks, but for another, it’s an idealistic, heartwarming film about forging bonds despite different cultures, and peace on earth, goodwill towards men. Decent holiday viewing, eh?
Adapted from Paulette Jiles’ National Book Award-nominated novel, News of the World follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Civil War veteran and recent widower who spends his days spreading the gospel of modernity to those in the Southwest by traveling town to town, holding readings of local and national newspapers for a dime a showtime (oh, the days in which reading was an easily marketable skill). It’s 1870, and the country is still “healing” from the massive schism which ended a mere five years earlier, with occupying Union troops still stationed in Texas and racist violence by former rebels accompanying the news of the 15th Amendment’s ratification. Kidd stumbles across the aftermath of one such attack on his travels, and in the ruins of a wrecked wagon, he finds a young girl (Helena Zengel) hiding. Covered in deerskin clothing, the girl doesn’t speak a word of English, but her paperwork tells Kidd everything he needs to know: The young one, named Johanna, was taken from her family by the Kiowa following a raid in which every other member of her family died, and in turn, she was taken from her captors — who the girl now considers her adopted family — and was to be returned to her only living relatives by the victim of said attack.
Kidd attempts to bring the girl to the Marshal in the next town, but he’s told that the man is on a mission, and he can either leave the girl there for an unknown duration or take her to her family himself. Johanna, on the other hand, hates everything about her situation and lashes out violently towards those who try to get her to adapt to the ways of the colonizer (one rainy night, she even escapes, and sprints towards the muddy cliffs of a canyon where she can see a Kiowa migration in the foggy distance, crying for them not to leave her behind). After some soul-searching, he decides to embark on the journey, and he and Johanna set off into the plains, doing readings in towns along the way. Of course, things don’t always go right — in the span of a few days, the pair are chased out of a town by a group of thugs looking to buy the girl from Kidd — but the pair grow fond of each other even amidst the hardship. And, as you probably guess, they learn that family is more than just blood relation.
As always, Hanks does this without ever once feeling phony, contrived, or insincere, and he’s able to support the weight of the narrative easily. It’s strong work, but it is definitely comfort food compared to his brusque, quieted roles in films like Captain Phillips or even this year’s Greyhound, which is significantly more taxing on his ability and, therefore, more interesting to watch (what a shame that we couldn’t compare this to BIOS, a truly bizarre-sounding sci-fi film, featuring Hanks fully going against type, that was to release this year before the world went to shit). But it’s Zengel who truly steals the show, and that might not come as a surprise to the international critics who have had the pleasure of watching her career unfold — her last film, System Crasher, was Germany’s submission to the Oscars this year, and you can see why. She’s so good at capturing the extreme emotions of this particular character — her rage and sadness at being taken from not one, but two families; her creativity and cleverness; her warmth towards those she cares about — and pairing her against Hanks, a quiet and reflective actor (though, perhaps not in Bachelor Party) was a swell choice that serves the film well.
There’s a lot about News of the World that feels Spielbergian beyond the mere appearance of Hanks: There’s the heavy focus on the parent-child relationship at the emotional core of the plot, which brings an uncommon warmth to the proceedings, given that Greengrass has mainly been an analyst of tragedy and disaster when he’s not doing blockbuster spy fiction. There’s also an aesthetic similarity — a lot of Greengrass’ judder-heavy style was popularized by Latter-Day Spielberg — but aside from the construction of a few of the action sequences, you’d barely recognize it as a Greengrass film. This could simply be due to the fact that it was lensed by longtime Ridley Scott collaborator Dariusz Wolski, instead of, say, Oliver Wood, and Wolski’s traditionalist leanings moderated some of the dynamic and adrenaline-influenced stylings present in Greengrass’s previous work. Those expecting Fordian landscapes filmed with epic grandeur at the heart of monument valley will be disappointed, and Greengrass’s approach to his setting emphasizes the poverty and struggle of the working folk in those communities, including one hellacious journey through a tannery where the stripped corpses of bison sit near the bleached skulls of other members of the herd after pools of blackened water have boiled the muscle and sinew to a slough.
Despite its reluctance to embrace the “beauty” of the frontier,” Greengrass’s last main swipe from Spielberg is his thickly-layered Americana, a practical baklava of stacked morals and mythos, soaked in the honey of warm idealism. News of the World believes in the fundamental goodness of the American spirit, despite all the evidence to the contrary littered around his characters, and, as Spielberg often does, Greengrass offers up Hanks as a sterling orator of its virtues. In an early scene during a reading, Kidd calms a crowd, angry at the news that their occupiers are now giving former slaves the right to vote, and appeals to the better angels of their nature, quashing any attempt for potential violence. There’s even a moment in which the Captain works a crowd up into a frenzy following a land baron’s attempt to coax Kidd into reading a newspaper that he and his cronies published instead of, you know, stories about cholera and flooding, a literal repudiation of “fake news” baked into the core of the film. What is frustrating is that, even though this is leagues and leagues better in terms of representation than, say, The Searchers (given that it is a pointed examination of cross-cultural exchange), it still doesn’t really know how to depict or deal with Native Americans. Most often, they appear filtered through fog or dust, and help our characters at a pivotal moment in their journey, but it didn’t exactly sit right with me, and I look forward to reading criticism from that perspective.
All in all, News of the World is a fine and sweet film, one to be shared and savored with dads across the country whenever it’s safe to do so, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was just a little bit slight. Following decades and decades of revisionist westerns, it’s almost weird to come across one that’s so willing to just tell its story straight-forward without a hint of reanalysis of its ideals. It’s not so much propping up the traditional mythos — the lone gunfighter arriving in town with a problem to solve, or the yee-haw slaughter of Native Americans — but it is propping up another: That of the ideal American centrist, who, through oration, grit, and kindness, can heal fractures and salves between nearly incompatible groups and unite them as a community. Perhaps there’s some comfort in that to some, but I do wonder if those words — and the films that spawn from them — will ring hollower and hollower as the days pass by.