News Of The World
Hey, I finally got here. It feels like a super long time since Paul Greengrass’ latest popped into my Netflix queue, but every instance that I tried to make time to watch it seemed like something else was coming up to distract my attention, until it just fell out of mind. Only last week did I get the opportunity to both remind myself of the films existence, and to actually give it a go. You might well wonder if this state of affairs is to the films detriment – after all, if it was something worth seeing I probably would not have been able to procrastinate on it for so long – but I assure you it is mostly my own damn fault, and my own damn short attention span.
Because I did want to see this. I mean, Paul Greengrass may not have the fullest filmography, but I couldn’t describe any of the films he has made as duds. And this one, based on a 2016 book by Paulette Jiles, happens to re-unite him with the person of one Tom Hanks. The two produced something really special in 2013’s Captain Phillips, a film where Hanks’ performance in the ending, in my opinion, cemented him firmly as one of the finest actors in the history of the profession, if his body of work beforehand hadn’t already done so. News Of The World was a very different production however, with Greengrass’ dipping into the realm of the neo-western, and depicting the sort of main narrative that he hasn’t really tried before. Is he still 100% or was this more like the tabloid rag of the same name?
In antebellum America, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) travels from town to town of the American frontier, making his way by reading newspapers to paying crowds. While travelling one day his discovers Johanna (Helena Zengel), a young settler girl taken by Native Americans as an infant, now “liberated” but whose transport to her remaining family has been killed. Unwillingly at first, Kidd takes the burden of transporting the uncivilised Johanna on himself: together, the two deal with the many perils of the American west, and confront the darker parts of their respective pasts.
Having just come off one rather good exploration of father/daughter relationships in the form of The Mitchells Vs The Machines, it is a hell of a coincidence that my next new film be something along the same general lines, albeit being completely different in the form of its delivery. News Of The World is that same basic story in its deepest connection though: an older male figure, a younger female figure, both full of their own traumas, conceits and desperation, now crashing into each other in unlikely circumstances. Where The Mitchells Vs The Machines used this as an avenue for comedy in an unlikely apocalyptic crisis, News Of The World is far more grounded of course, but none the worse for that: as expected, this is a top-notch effort, engrossing to the last.
Tom Hanks never ceases to amaze. I find it hard to put into words just why he is as good an actor as he is, but I will attempt it anyway: there are few in the profession who are as good at fully inhabiting the roles given to them as he is, wherein they can give the appropriate displays of emotion, extreme or limited, that can really get inside the hearts of an audience. Hanks does that again here. His Captain Kidd is the picture-perfect definition of man carrying a great emotional burden, the reveal of which takes some some to come, a burden he is trying his very best to bury. That heaviness is manifest in this performance, as is the relief when the burden begins to be lessened later on. Hanks plays Kidd as a man who clutches at Johanna like a drowning man clutching at a lifebuoy, a a means of saving him from the deadening pool he previously surrendered to: a Confederate veteran who had no enthusiasm for the aspects of “the Cause” that are intrinsic to it has plenty to deal with internally.
On the other hand, Zengel also deserves a great deal of credit. News Of The World is that most difficult of two-hander, with one very established veteran and one very fresh newcomer, and child acting in such a production is never going to be easy. But Zengel handles her role very well. Like Hanks, she has to imbue her character with a mix of nonchalant acceptance of the hardness of the world with a deep-deeded pain, in her characters case in response to being an orphan twice over. She does very well, capturing both that pain but leaving room for the accepted whimsy of a child, one who delights in breaking social norms and of pushing boundaries, while withholding the cold, hard reality of the events of her life.
The two are able to form a very close and affecting interaction through the course of News Of The World, one that has enough in it to make you forget soon enough about inevitable comparisons to True Grit or The Searchers. It starts small – Johanna can’t even speak English when they meet, and very quickly attempts to run off with the first band of Native Americans she finds – but grows and grows through what we might call an almost episodic trek through some of the darker aspects of the frontier. There’s a murderous trio who decide that if Kidd won’t sell them Johanna they’ll take her by force (Johanna comes up with a unique manner of beefing up Kidd’s birdshot shells to deal with them); there’s a robber baron who wants to force Kidd into being his own personal propagandist; there’s sandstorms that come with both deadly peril and aid unlooked for. This bitty approach to their journey works well enough, and gives Kidd and Johanna a reason to find trust in each other, a trust that is crucial to understanding the depths of both Kidd’s private grief – tied as it is to a lost family he is trying to forget – and Johanna’s open defiance of civilisation. One scene, where Kidd asks about Johanna’s deceased first family and then tells her to forget it as soon as he sees a change in her expression, is a brilliant depiction of a very masculine refusal to recognise grief.
Things wind down very suitably to a lower-key finale than you might expect. Indeed, the moments of highest tension in the film actually take place more around the mid-mark, meaning that News Of The World instead takes on a more poignant, emotional climax as its finale. Kidd and Johanna come to the realisation that they are both out of time to a certain extent, with Kidd having lost the life he had before the war and Johanna unable to now properly integrate with society in the manner that someone of her age and gender is expected to do so. In many ways the film follows a predictable course, but it is far from an unpalatable one: Greengrass instead works hard at making that expected ending one that is satisfactory and meaningful, a logical end to what has been an oft-times terrible journey.
This is a wild west that reflects much more modern approaches to the period and the location. The magnificent vistas, the isolated towns, the spirit of being on the edge of what we know as civilisation and the dying embers of the First Nations, there are held in common, but after that News Of The World hues much closer to the neo-realistic viewpoint, where the American West in a postbellum world is a dangerous, dirty and very unwholesome place, with the lack of law and order being more than just a bland statement, it’s a reality that means death and despair hides behind every corner. The connection between Kidd and Johanna is even more acute in such a setting, where humanity seems deadened in a people who have to scrabble a living from desert, where authority, if it exists, comes from armed Yankees who little regard for the people they have authority over and where compassion is measured in small doses. News Of The World, which in its very title calls attention to the manner in which the people of frontier Texas are hungry for happy news from very far away, does a great job of capturing that world.
More than that, News Of The World is obvious influenced by the modern-day. Greengrass’ most recent film, 2018’s 22nd July, was an exploration of political and cultural divides leading to tragedy in a very modern context, with the director doing his damnedest to shine an unsympathetic light on the miseries and danger exemplified by the new right. He was one of many who confidently predicted a Donald Trump re-election, and did so with a sense of dread. News Of The World depicts a divided land – five years after the Civil War, along with social and monetary schisms – albeit without the overtly extreme outcome of 22nd July, but its emphasis on reconciliation, with others and with our pasts, is notable in that regard. Greengrass seems to want to paint a message of hope for America, where people from very different points can find understanding with each other: “the war’s over” as Kidd says, “we have to stop fighting”. Of course the allegory could be employed a little better, given News Of The World and its actual setting, which forestalls much more butchery of Native Americans and much more racism towards African-Americans (neither demographic gets much agency here, though the allegory is probably aimed directly at 2021’s white Americans).
But, taking it as that allegory, we can say that healing is possible: more than that, the manner in which an honest narrative of public events, as shown with the Hanks character and what he chooses, and chooses not, to recite from the papers, has an enormous effect on people (the robber baron character, in particular, is a real peddler of “fake news”). It isn’t hard to see Greengrass’ point, in a world where the worst American President for well over a century was elevated to his position on the back of a media machine that valued clicks over honesty. Kidd’s dedication to truthful performances of his craft is an heroic act, of that Greengrass leaves us in no doubt.
Greengrass directs a slightly different picture to the kind that we might be used to from him in News Of The World. The man behind so many of the Bourne movies, United 93 and Captain Phillips has always tended towards an extremely, almost distractingly so, realistic style, with plenty of use of shaky cam, grainy filters and tight up-close cinematography, that would make casual observes of random scenes in his back catalogue think they might be watching a documentary. News Of The World is different: the cinema verite is gone in favour of something more traditional, and something more patient and long-winded. Of course it still looks great, though I wouldn’t say that it is any more eye-catching than your standard neo-western: the paradox of the lushness of the area compared to its inherent desolation is captured very well, as is the shock of the human occupied areas, as dirty as their occupants in a landscape that is otherwise pristine. In this it is grittier than something like Slow West, but more hopeful than something like The Sisters Brothers.
That last aspect, the dichotomy between untouched wilderness and the onrushing human presence, is something that Greengrass wants to spend some time with. In one very notable sequence, Kidd and Johanna are escorted to a frontier town that seems more like something out of Dante’s Inferno, the road marked by stripped bison left casually at the side of a road. Anywhere Americans have left a mark, it’s generally one where there is some sort of significant moral decay, or very obvious physical disintegration. This topic isn’t over-egged, and Native Americans are not depicted in overly glorifying terms, but it is something that is is the heart of the narrative. Humanity is a bit of a disease in News Of The World, one that Kidd and Johanna are trying to outrace. Greengrass brings that feeling to life visually, which is the main accomplishment of the films cinematography.
News Of The World is an engaging adventure story that shows a slightly different perspective on the old west than many might be used to. This is interesting enough of its own accord, but the real treasure of the film is that key central relationship, and the performances of the two actors who inhabit them. One is so routinely praised that to add to the mountain is an exercise that makes little real impression anymore, but the other may yet have a stellar career in front of her, should she choose to pursue it. The two make News Of The World, which at times strays into predictability, more than what it is, and that is a feat worthy of praise. Paul Greengrass has yet to make a bad film. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).