NEWS OF THE WORLD
Greengrass! Hanks! Gimme!
Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Angelo Covino
1870 Texas. Ex-infantryman Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) makes a living roaming Dallas telling assembled throngs the news stories of the day. Yet when he runs into orphan Johanna (Zengel), raised by the Kiowa tribe, he takes on the job of returning her to her surviving family in San Antonio.
A WORD CLOUD describing filmmaker Paul Greengrass, director of the best Bourne flicks, United 93 and Captain Phillips, would surely include “intense”, “political”, “shakycam” and “immediate”. What you wouldn’t expect to find is “stately”. But for News Of The World, based on the novel by Paulette Giles, Greengrass has made his most stylistically conventional, aesthetically beautiful flick to date, a Western that pitches the director’s Captain Phillips compadre Tom Hanks, America’s dad, as a surrogate parent shepherding a nearly mute pre-teen across rugged, perilous terrain. Swapping handheld edginess for gorgeous sweeping drone shots and James Newton Howard’s colourful score, it’s less immersive and gripping than his best work but it’s more expansive, perfectly played, and packs a helluva punch when it finally (and quietly) drops its emotional motherlode.
The latest entry in Hanks’ platoon of Captains is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an ex-infantryman who moves from town to town in Texas in 1870 (five years after the Civil War), reading the news to enrapt audiences. A kind of Huw Edwards on horseback, Kidd delivers stories ranging from a meningitis outbreak to the Pacific Railroad building new train tracks through “Indian reservations” to tall tales about men who come back from the dead. Playing a man obsessed with stories so he doesn’t have to deal with his own, Hanks relishes spinning current affairs, to the extent you wish Kidd would host Newsnight.
En route between towns, Kidd comes across a lynched Black man hanging from a tree that leads him to an abandoned pre-teen girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), of German origin but raised by the Kiowa tribe, being taken to her biological aunt and uncle on their farm in San Antonio. When Kidd is unable to offload the child, he makes the decision to take the child himself. “A little girl is lost. She needs to go home,” might be the most Tom Hanks-y dialogue ever.
So begins an odd-couple odyssey, with Kidd trying to bond with Johanna over the thousandmile journey. Greengrass and co-writer Luke Davies (Lion) don’t make life easy for Kidd or themselves by making the language barrier insurmountable. An innkeeper (Elizabeth Marvel) speaks Kiowa and ekes out a little of Johanna’s backstory; with her German immigrant parents killed by the Kiowa people, then her new Native American family killed by soldiers, she is “an orphan twice over”. What follows are charming, if familiar, scenes as Kidd tries to civilise Johanna (wearing a dress, eating with cutlery, teaching her English) while Johanna teaches him songs, slowly opening him up.
As much as News Of The World is about America in the 1870s, it also dovetails seamlessly into the 21st century. This is very much a disunited States of America, the post-civil War Reconstruction era serving up a landscape of racism run amok, where difference has been demonised and the notion of news has been devalued. This idea emerges as Kidd and Johanna run into Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), the governor of a lawless camp of renegades. With obvious Trumpian parallels, Farley insists that Kidd read out a doctored, self-aggrandising version of his story, which the newsman distorts in an upbeat way but with dangerous results. Made extra eerie by the skinned buffalos lying around the settlement, it’s a portrayal of proud boys who have driven away Native Americans, Mexicans and Blacks that feels horrifyingly relevant.
Between the modern-day parallels Greengrass doesn’t skimp on classic Wild West spectacle. The best set-piece is a sustained sequence of cat and mouse as Kidd and Johanna are chased by a trio looking to buy Johanna for nefarious purposes that ends up in a shootout in a rocky hillside. This isn’t movie-movie gun-play. Instead, it’s about how difficult it is to actually shoot someone, with Johanna’s street smarts bolstering Kidd’s cool logic. Other action licks include a runaway cart and that most modern of natural disasters: the badly CG’D dust cloud (to be fair to Greengrass, he renders Kidd caught in the melee almost as abstract animation).
A breakout star from excellent German drama System Crasher, Zengel doesn’t overplay the feral kid routine, instead, almost entirely through facial expressions, imbuing Johanna with toughness mixed with an earned vulnerability. Without a shred of sentimentality, Hanks invests Kidd, a man away from his wife for five years due to the war, trying to process the horrors he has seen, with dignity and compassion but perhaps in a more sombre, tortured register than we are used to — a coda provides huge emotional wallop wrapped in a velvet glove.