by Philip Price
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel & Ray McKinnon
Runtime: 1 hour & 58 minutes
In the second verse of Alan Jackson’s 1994 hit “Gone Country” the singer talks about a folk singer considering trying his hand at the more financially viable country music scene. The verse is largely crafted to segue into the multi-purpose chorus, but its comments on the lack of any real difference between the intent behind Bob Dylan’s lyrical content and country music’s entire ethos (standing up for the little guy, speaking out against wealth and privilege) is relevant given the South has always pinned pride as a key characteristic and humility as a weakness, but by uttering the line, “Well, they're not as backward as they used to be,” in reference to his hillbilly brethren Jackson essentially admits to past shortcomings with an eye toward the promise of a more harmonious future. While the only obvious parallel between Jackson’s song and “News of the World” is that director Paul Greengrass has in fact "gone country", intentional or not, the director’s latest collaboration with star Tom Hanks also addresses outright the idea of looking toward that more harmonious future in the wake of reconstruction-era America. Though not as effectively communicated in this film based on the novel by Paulette Jiles as it was in Hanks' "Black Jeopardy" skit on “Saturday Night Live” or as efficiently as in Jackson's song, “News of the World” still comes with a competent take on how far we can regress when we allow our differences to divide us rather than sharing in our similarities to connect us. The idea that even if people are willing to change, more often than not the times are not ready to turn with them is a theme that feels as relevant now as it does in the film’s Texas setting circa 1870. Of course, meaningful change takes time and there's a caveat of understanding to this given the period setting, but there’s still something oddly disconcerting about seeing Texans denounce the articles of a newspaper as read by Hanks' Captain Jefferson Kidd (yes, this totally could have been the middle chapter in a Hanks/Greengrass trilogy called “Captain Jefferson,” but alas...) that conveys the actions of a president the majority of Southerners disapprove of. It's not a perfect parallel (not yet anyway), but the fact Jefferson's reading of the news opens with an update on the meningitis epidemic that is, "spreading without prejudice" and had thus far claimed ninety-seven souls in a two month period, allows for said parallels and furthermore, said regressions, to feel all the timelier and - hopefully - eye-opening. A magnified look at our past with direct ties to our realized future, “News of the World” is a handsomely mounted and sturdily told tale that sports a modern spirit through the guise of one of America's most revered and respected genres.
Hanks' Captain is a veteran of three wars, the last of which being the Civil War that ended only five years prior to when the events of this film take place. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd now earns a living by making his way from town to town to read the newspapers for folks willing to pay a dime. Given a total lack of radio along with the fact the words in newspapers didn't often travel outside of major metropolitan areas, this is a valid and valued service of the time. Captain Kidd is notably good at his job as well for, as one might be able to venture a guess given the previous paragraph, the Captain opens with what he knows is going to grab his audience's attention - for better or worse - and then eases their minds with a funny, entertaining, and/or heartwarming human interest story that gives the people what they came for, what they need to carry on, as well as the justification that their ten cents was well spent. That said, the reconstruction era is something of a devastating period in American history and much of “News of the World” deals in showing how different types of people are dealing with the impending and sometimes overwhelming changes that are being thrust upon them. Most intriguing about Hanks' performance is the fact he portrays a man who obviously fought for the South and served as an officer in the Confederate army, but due to the fact he comes strapped with Hanks' inherent earnestness there is more than a belief in the character that not only will the experience that drives the film help to alter his perspective, but rather that this shift has already begun to take place given the experiences he's had sharing the news. It is in his travels from one stop to the next that he encounters the lynched body of a black soldier and an overturned carriage that contains a young girl the soldier was seemingly transporting. We come to know this young girl as Johanna (as played by German actress Helena Zengel) who, in the film, is the daughter of German settlers. Johanna was kidnapped from her biological family at a young age by the Kiowa tribe who essentially raised her as their own as she no longer speaks neither German nor English but communicates solely through the Kiowa language of Cáuijògà. Johanna makes it apparent she wants nothing other than to be returned to her tribe who - at this point - are the only family she's known. The Kiowa tribe was officially moved to a reservation only three years prior to when the film takes place though, so it can be surmised this is likely where the U.S. army is herding Johanna's tribe to. Per the usual with a Hanks character, Captain Kidd is only trying to do the right and honorable thing by returning Johanna to the military so that she might then be returned to her only remaining blood relatives, but inevitably Kidd is strapped with the task himself; Kidd realizing along the way that he's as desperate for a real home as his young companion.
Going into something like “News of the World,” a John Ford-inspired Western via the more frenetic eye of Greengrass, there was an expectation that while we would still have beautifully framed shots of wide open vistas that we would also be subject to Hanks as a grizzled sharpshooter, delivering and protecting this young girl as seen through the eyes of the director of three of the four Matt Damon ‘Bourne’ movies. To my surprise though, this is a Greengrass film uninterested in his signature touch of handheld cameras and more a Greengrass film intent on using his experience with large productions to convey what might have felt too ham-handed were the same message spelled out in a modern setting. Greengrass and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (a frequent Ridley Scott collaborator) steady their hand sans the single out and out action sequence about forty-five minutes in that is as deftly handled as one might expect and a genuine exercise in tension. When set to James Newton Howard's strong if not necessarily remarkable score, the images and action are only amplified that much more. While realizing the meaning of the title almost immediately given our protagonist's occupation, I half expected the film to stay in this lane of relaying a theme centered on history repeating itself especially in regard to the multiculturalism of America - the value of it - and the racial violence and oppression that accompany this meeting of cultures. Timely as ever, no? And sure, “News of the World” is very keen to highlight cultural clashes that are and will seemingly continue to be at the heart of our nation’s history, but it's also about much more than your standard analogy for modern America through the guise of an old-fashioned epic as it is the relationship, the dynamic, and the bond ultimately formed by Captain Kidd and the young Johanna that serves as the highlight of the piece. It is this central relationship that invests you not only in the characters, but in the going-ons around them and the context in which they exist. Did I know or even necessarily care to investigate how a Confederate soldier might come to adjust to a world that was being re-built on principles he fought to oppose? Of course not, why would I? “News of the World” and its script from Greengrass and co-writer Luke Davies (“Lion”) doesn't try to justify any actions of the Confederate military, but more they discuss how the poor and disadvantaged were fighting a rich man's war, how they were being forced to fight for something they couldn't wholly understand and how, in the case of Captain Kidd specifically, that despite the Union having won the battle that the country is still having trouble resolving the issues that caused the war in the first place. Though it seems apparent Kidd gleans this from his travels it is his responsibility to Johanna that causes him to reconsider the validity and purpose war has brought to him over his lifetime; seeing now that it will never truly solve the larger, inherent problems faced by our nation.
To be fair, this is a movie that hardly offers anything new by way of any of these themes or ideas and certainly doesn't add anything to the genre that we haven't seen before, but what I enjoyed so much about the film is that it felt like something comforting, something that both intended to be a throwback of sorts while at least striving for those connections to a contemporary audience. While somewhat touched upon already, Hanks is a performer who at this stage of his career is an elder statesman of Hollywood - a man who has been acting longer than I've been alive - and someone who obviously knows what he's doing, but more likely doesn't have to do anything at all anymore if he didn't want to, if he could help himself. On the other hand, this is only Zengel's fifth feature film to appear in and her first outside of her native German. Together, the two come to find commonalities with Kidd developing not only becoming a protector of Johanna's, but something of a nurturer as well. Again, it's not at all unexpected that the character of Kidd develops these tendencies given his protection naturally turns into caring for the child, but the way in which Hanks and Zengel execute this arc through what is otherwise something of an episodic structure is completely endearing allowing for a strong forgiveness of what can sometimes become a sluggish narrative. Speaking of narrative though, much like with how Hanks and Zengel function to serve as tools for Greengrass to convey as equally an entertaining story as he does an important one, Kidd must work through how to tell a story that not only captures his audience's attention but imposes an understanding upon them. As Kidd faces the constant conflict of trying to accurately portray the difficulty of interacting with that larger world without being influenced by one’s own pre-conceptions, Greengrass offers this through said core relationship. Never would Kidd have imagined himself, a solitary Texas wanderer, as a family man but by coming face to face with the reality of such a situation all assumptions and expectations are dashed from view with only his innate, gut feelings to render him a more affectionate and emotionally available father figure. In essence, it's the kind of role Hanks was born to play and has perfected over the years, but as with much of “News of the World” the familiarity of it all doesn't make it feel any less complex. In fact, given the depths at which Greengrass and Davies explore this familiar terrain the conclusions they draw only feel that much more satisfying. Yes, it's true, there will be little about this movie that surprises anyone given the story being told, but it's the way the film says what it wants that proves this conventionally framed Western a challenger of conventional ideas.