Tom Hanks Brings News Both Good and ill to Western Towns Post-U.S. Civil War.
DIRECTED BY PAUL GREENGRASS/2020
A weary nomad and the child he’s tasked with returning home wander the barren, desolate postwar landscape. In between bouts of danger, we watch and wish that they’d simply fully embrace their own found family. Alas, he remains fixated on his mission, though side quests and peril abound.
No, it’s not The Mandalorian, though the star at the center is of it all is every bit as iconic as anything else in the galaxy. It is indeed a little surprising to realize that Tom Hanks, that American living legend, has never been in a Western until now. (Some are quick on the draw, however, to point out that Hanks’s defining Toy Story character, Sheriff Woody, is in fact a cowboy of sorts. Yes, yes).
News of the World is beautifully photographed by Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus), if, at times a bit glaring in its hard-pressed color correction and narrow palate. The only portions that aren’t standard-issue dirt n’ sky tactile immersion are the mouthwash-hued night scenes. It all looks rather great, even as the visuals make such a subtle ask for willing suspension of any expectation of absolute realism. This world is one of both gritty tactility and breathtaking, unspoiled landscape. That unspoiled quality is only slightly spoiled by the knowing reality that digital trickery, not natural clearing, is likely responsible for such scenery.
Like any Western worth its salt, News of the World, though set in 1870, has a thing or two (or ten) to say about the state of the time in which it was made. The fact that, due to production lead times and whatnot, the contemporary here & now that is being commented on predates the 2020 “new normals” of pandemic life does nothing to lessen the immediacy of the screenplay’s allegories. (The film is written by director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles).
Hanks embodies former Confederate infantryman Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd as he travels from one Texas town to the next eking out a humble living as a public reader of the news. Along the way, via Hanks’ finely tuned performance, Kidd is making amends with a country that is no longer the one he fought for but is nevertheless his own. Those on the losing end of the U.S. 2020 presidential election would do quite well to embrace such an internal journey of reconciliation and humanitarianism exampled by this protagonist.
There’s a showmanship to what Kidd does in his news reading sessions, both playing to his varying crowds but also not sparing any realities. (In one particularly Southern holdout, the mere reading of the name “President Ulysses S. Grant” sends the gathering into an angry tizzy. Kidd forcibly persists with the reading, verbatim). Along the way he is faced with being handed territorial propaganda and even threats on his life when the news he’s brought with him isn’t to the liking of certain stubborn contingencies in the service of a wealthy megalomaniac.
If its contemporary commentary on the polarizing politicization of journalism circa 2020 and the fractured, completely at-odds society that it is yielding is the brain of Greengrass’s News of the World, then Kidd’s protective role of the young twice-orphaned Johana is its heart. As played by twelve-year-old German actress Helena Zengel, Johana is as radiant as she is quiet.
First German and then Kiowa Indian, Johana has little to no means of verbal communication with Kidd, who is foisted into the role of her surrogate caretaker, having discovered her by chance. Not unlike the dynamic of The Mandalorian’s Din Djarin and “Baby Yoda”, Kidd’s relationship to this kid is one that is foisted upon him, but inevitably evolves. The question of how such a “found family” dynamic can and should play out in the very real-world rooting of 1870 Texas is the main story of the film.
The notion that every director (except Billy Wilder, who hated horses) pines to one day make a Western is not lost, as the notoriously frenetic but also socially apt Paul Greengrass (he of three Bourne films squarely in the former category; United 93 and 22 July achingly in the former catagory) seems to be relishing every moment of this saunter into America’s 150-years-ago mythicized past.
The action, what there is if it in this quite somber film, comes when a handful of toughs decide they want the underage girl. Not taking no for an answer, they pursue the pair outside of town and onto increasingly rough terrain, determined to gun them into an early grave. The editing shifts into a clip of atonal rapidity heretofore uncharacteristic of the piece, but wholly familiar to anyone who’s seen Greengrass’s game-changing actioner The Bourne Supremacy or even the filmmaker’s previous outing with Hanks, 2013’s Captain Phillips. News of the World, while generally exceptional, falls short of the extremes of both examples.
With this carefully rendered and methodical Western, Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks have gifted viewers the best entry in the oft-neglected genre since the Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The fact that certain beats may ring immediately familiar in regard to a buzzingly popular tale from a galaxy far, far away can be chalked up to zeitgeist coincidence. But apart from that, News of the World has plenty of its own worthy qualities fit to print.