News of the World
Paul Greengrass' latest is a solid western, if a bit too restrained
Paul Greengrass has been fascinated with terrorism. From his days working as a war-journalist to his turn as a film director, there was always an exploration about the forms that terrorism takes be it in United 93 (2006) with Islamic terrorists, or Somali pirates in Captain Phillips (2013), and he’s most recently been digging into the worrying trend of white nationalist terrorism. His last film, 22 July (2018) was the Netflix take on the massacre of a summer camp in Norway by a far-right extremist. Thus, the jump from these films to making a classic Western seems like stretch, only it isn’t.
News of the World takes place in 1870’s Texas, where a retired Confederate Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), goes around from town-to-town reading and performing the news that he takes from local and national newspapers. This is a curious job at first, helping disseminate news for many workers who were either illiterate or had trouble with the elitist newspaper vernacular. In many ways, Captain Kidd was the original news anchor of his time. Amongst his travels he finds an abandoned girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel), who has been adopted/kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe and was being transported to her nearest relatives. Kidd is eager to simply drop Johanna off at the nearest town and let the authorities deal with her, but due to certain difficulties that arise he decides to transport her himself.
Thus, Greengrass has framed a simple Western plot of getting characters from point A to point B and having the journey inform us about their characters and their surrounding environment. Thankfully Greengrass retains his minimalist style of directing, encouraging great restraint from his actors. This is incredibly suitable for the Western genre, whose subtle and tough faced characters Sergio Leone had crafted into a genre cliché in the 60s. As such I was surprised that Greengrass hadn’t done a Western sooner, although it is true that the genre is not a big moneymaker as of late.
It is clear that Greengrass has chosen to make News of the World as a way to make a more indirect commentary of the current state of the United States regarding its hateful division. The film takes place only 5 years after the end of the Civil War and is set in one of the losing-side states. The reactions thus are ones of rejection of the results of the war and of the imposition of the new rules regarding the abolition of slavery and rights for black people. Surprisingly, much of the arguments that you hear Confederate supporters shout out during this film seem to be largely repeated verbatim today by many right-wing supporters. One needs only see the pictures of a Confederate flag during the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th to conclude that the American Civil War still is far from resolved.
Regarding Greengrass’ fascination with terrorism, examining the aftermath of the Civil War is a curious way to continue his explorations. Many attribute this period as the beginning of the modern white supremacist movements with the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the eugenic ideologies being spouted in Europe. Greengrass is thus focusing on the inception and birth of what led to the actions of the villain in July 22 and the far-right populist movements of today.
Curiously Greengrass’ response and solution to these problems and divisions is another aspect that has become incredibly popular and the center of controversies: the media and the news. By having the main character be a newsreader there is an emphasis on the power that storytelling and true stories can have in unifying and inspiring people. One particular scene seemed to have noticeable echoes regarding “fake news” when Captain Kidd is threatened into reading a piece of self-appraising news by a corrupt town leader; Kidd decides to forgo this and tell the inspiring story of a group of Pennsylvania miners that survived a fire instead, rousing his listeners into a passion. Thus, like any good journalist, Greengrass sees that the way to move forward from such powerful emotions of hate and division, is by having truth be a common ground.
The narrative at the center of News of the World is a rather solid one as well if not entirely original. It is true that many Westerns borrow forms and ideas from each other, and the simplistic aspects of its genre don’t permit for much variation. Thus, Greengrass is rather liberated to let his actors roam and slowly open up to each other. Hanks is amazing, with Greengrass pulling another stoic and restrained approach from the American actor just as he did in Captain Phillips. Meanwhile Helena Zengel was spectacular as the young Johanna. The German child-actor held her own against Hanks and was able to bring about the sense of trauma and desolation that Johanna goes through while not losing sight of her strength. Johanna’s story itself is another one with deep symbolisms regarding the state of the US, having had her German parents massacred by Native Americans only to have her new adopted kidnappers massacred again by soldiers, shoveled around as an unwanted package. Her story plays out as a powerful example of the violent tirades that rip apart the identity of Johanna leaving her between her German, Kiowa, and American identities. This mesh might as well be the perfect American example of an immigrant nation, but also informs viewers of the violent past that contextualizes it.
Greengrass utilizes his shaky-cam style that he employed to great effect in his Jason Bourne films, giving a sense of discomfort and lack of control during Captain Kidd and Johanna’s journey. This was effective as well in the sparing tense moments, which disconcert viewers as much as the characters. However, I was left wanting more from News of the World. Greengrass comes close to digging into some deeper character moments but seems to skim over them in favor of his famed restraint and minimalism. I found this to be incredibly frustrating as spending more character moments with the characters would have helped craft a more emotional journey and arc for the narrative, helping land the underlying political and social points that Greengrass wants to make. By holding back too much you’re left feeling like Greengrass glosses over and takes too superficial an approach to the entire story.
In the end, News of the World is a solid western from Greengrass and certainly his most paused and reflective film regarding the themes he’s most interested in exploring. The minimalism and restraint from the British director fit well with the genre but are perhaps too overdone, not letting his phenomenal actors dig into and expand certain character moments. As a result, the film is very competently made, but leaves only a fleeting impact on viewers.