Paul Greengrass is so effective at depicting real-life tragedies (Bloody Sunday, United 93, Captain Phillips, 22 July) that we forget how good of a storyteller he is. How apt that his latest film, News of the World, is a Western about the simple power of stories to bring people of different cultures together. With Tom Hanks in a comforting, perfectly-suited role and a story that draws influence from The Searchers and True Grit, the film finds that common decency, and a little bit of journalistic integrity, can be the cure to a harsh world racked by divisions. A real change of pace for Greengrass.
Set in post-Civil War Texas, News of the World stars Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (even the name sounds humanist), an ex-Confederate soldier who now travels the country reading newspaper stories to anyone willing to pay for it. His shows attract mostly the downtrodden, the poor, the workers too busy to read a paper; people who will never have the opportunity to travel. He is, in a sense, like a traveling broadcaster or anchorman, but mostly he is a storyteller, brightening the spirits of those who have little to be cheery about.
What kind of man takes on a job that keeps him away from home and family for years at a time? That question lingers in as Kidd lives his isolated existence, until he encounters a lynched black man and a terrified young girl, eventually named Johanna (Helena Zengel). She’s been raised by the Kiowa tribe ever since the massacre of her family, and was being escorted to Indian Affairs to sort out her future. Kidd tries to unload her on a group of soldiers but is instead instructed to take her into town himself. But with the IA agent gone, and Johanna making attempts to flee, Kidd knows the only way she’ll be safe is to make the long journey with her across dangerous frontier territory.
What follows is a straight-forward, episodic odyssey across Texas with Kidd and Johanna bonding like a father and daughter. There are dangers at every turn, mostly from men looking to buy or kidnap Johanna to use for their own sick pleasures. This leads to the bloodiest, and most thrilling encounter, as Kidd, who is armed with a birdshot rifle and a single pistol, must defend Johanna against three creeps wanting the girl for themselves. Other threats such as the harsh terrain and the fallibility of 19th-century engineering prove just as treacherous.
Where News of the World makes its most profound statement is when Kidd and Johanna are escorted, captured really, by Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), the violent head of a company town. Farley tries to force Kidd to read from a phony newspaper which presents him as a hero to the people, rather than the guy who lords over their lives with an iron fist. Kidd instead wins the crowd over with real news, not fake news, that also teaches a lesson about sticking together to overcome hardship.
This is one of those movies, like so many in Hank’s latter career, that benefit from our idea of him as basically the greatest human being in the world. I’m not sure it could work nearly as well with anybody else as Kidd, but we just trust everything about him and believe him when he vows to protect Johanna at all costs. For much of the movie Johanna doesn’t speak at all, and when she does it’s in languages he can’t understand. And yet they communicate through deeds; his actions earn her trust along the way. While he was trying to avoid familial attachments, here is this girl who becomes as much family to him as anything.
I like that News of the World comes from Greengrass, who not only delivers a message of hope and community, but also ditches the frenzied camera style of his Bourne films and reality dramas. Yeah, it’s easy-to-follow, abundantly earnest stuff but so what? Perhaps it’s too common now to say that we need movies like this right now, but I believe it. More than that, I believe Hanks and Greengrass believe it, too.