This past year has taught us that time flows differently during a pandemic. A week can feel like a month, and a month can feel like a year. It comes as a surprise then that two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Philadelphia) — long considered the personification of virtue, honour, and integrity (American Dad Edition) — top-lined two major films this year.
This past July, Hanks took figurative and literal command of Greyhound, a stirring WWII naval thriller where Hanks’ lead character, a first-time, middle-aged naval commander leading a convoy of merchant ships across the perilous Atlantic to deliver much-needed supplies to the war effort, grew measurably, believably into his role as commander, drawing on reserves of physical, mental, and emotional strengths to survive a long-running battle of attrition in men and materiel against deadly, stealth German submarines.
A Man, Not On a Mission
Hanks’ second role this year in News of the World, an 1870s-set Western directed by his Captain Phillips collaborator, Paul Greengrass (22 July, the Bourne series, Flight 93, Bloody Sunday), from a screenplay adaptation Greengrass co-wrote with Luke Davies from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel. This film doesn’t focus on German submarines, instead involving German immigrants new to pre and post-Civil War Texas.
Hanks essays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a war veteran who scrapes together a living as an itinerant news-reader, bringing the “news of the world” to Texans desperately eager for diversions of any kind. A natural performer and storyteller, Kidd adds particularized rhetorical flourishes to the news he carefully curates for each audience, altogether avoiding or adroitly sidestepping subjects that might alienate or anger his audience like the federal government in D.C. or Reconstruction (as a Confederate state, Texas had to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution to rejoin the Union).
The Searchers Minus One (Redux)
Before the peripatetic Kidd can reach the next town on his map, he comes across the lynching of a Black man (some things, like bigotry, racism, and hatred never change) and a young, feral girl, Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel, a revelatory performance), the apparent lone survivor of an attack by the Kiowa on her German immigrant family and now, six years later, the sole survivor of a reciprocal attack on her adopted Kiowa family by Western settlers or American troops (i.e., colonizers).
Twice forcibly removed from the familiarity of family, culture, and language, Johanna once again becomes a stranger in a strange land, distrustful of Kidd’s kindness, generosity, or compassion. At first, she’s incapable of understanding Kidd’s well-meaning attempts at rudimentary communication. Later on, Johanna learns a smattering of words and uses body language to cope and survive in a violent, lawless country where sympathy and empathy are in short supply (if they exist at all).
The Limitations of News Of the World as Socio-Political Critique
Kidd and Johanna’s start-stop-start journey allows for a narrative looseness that occasionally veers into meandering territory. But it’s always refocused by returning to Kidd’s burgeoning relationship with Johanna, a surrogate daughter in all but name (Kidd refuses to acknowledge Johana’s status for most of News of the World’s running time), slowly re-acclimating — to the mores and customs of a Western culture driven by land appropriation rationalized by the destructive idea of “manifest destiny.” Even as Greengrass inserts trenchant socio-political critiques of the Old West of post-Civil War, 1870s America into News of the World, he also downplays or even downright ignores the disturbing ramifications inherent in that critique, giving little, if any, voice to the Native-American voices violently displaced by the twin evils of colonialism and imperialism or the Black Americans who unwilling served in an American project built on the foundational principle of white supremacy.
Greengrass Rejects Controlled Chaos
While News of the World undoubtedly fails in some respects, it also succeeds in delivering the cathartic, contradictory pleasures of traditional, old-school Western, albeit with a modern, self-aware spin, specifically in its all-too-brief exploration of news-as-propaganda or news-with-an-agenda, the racist, xenophobic fears and anxieties underpinning Johanna’s return to the Caucasian world, and the rise of autocratic leaders where democracy has failed to prosper.
Heady ideas one and all, no doubt, ideas made all the more palatable by Greengrass’ decision to avoid the controlled chaos of the Bourne cycle (among others) and embraced a more measured, unobtrusive, classical approach to directing and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s wondrous compositions and vista-filled imagery.
News of the World debuts in movie theaters on December 25th.