We’re surrounded by so much news these days, mountains of it at our fingertips, that we forget not only how difficult it once was to receive it but the power it actually had. The news wasn’t (and isn’t) just words, it’s proof of civilization. That the world exists, that people beyond our immediate experience exist and are the same as us. And the power of that proof is enough to change a group’s behavior, hopefully for the better.
News of the World is a Western, sure, but it’s also a meditation on the quest for civilization.
That is probably more than Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) has really considered about his newfound occupation as traveling newsreader. But in the aftermath of the Civil War, jobs are catch as catch can and Kidd has found a niche that keeps body and soul together.
Traveling from town to town reading local newspapers to curious and Captain Kidd brings proof of civilization back to the wilderness – the wilderness of the frontier and the wilderness of life after wartime. All of that is thrown up in the air when he is tasked with bringing the survivor of a Kiowa attack (Helena Zengel) back to her only living family and a culture she has long been separated from.
The corollary to the strength of the news, though never explicitly stated, is that lack of information or false information is the blade which cleaves those bonds, which keeps families from merging to tribes from merging to nations. Kidd himself, as he travels through a sprawling southwest still coming to terms with a war it waged and lost, is just as lost as those around him.
Though he has spent the last several years as an ambassador of civilization he himself has not actually been able to rejoin it. The wounds of his own separation, of what the War has wrought — his wife, his home and his livelihood — are still too fresh.
If civilization is the search for human connection then War is the destruction of that connection. It is so antithetical to human social needs that it seems impossible for the participants to return from.
It’s a role perfectly suited to Hanks, and one he makes part of his classic screen persona. Unlike Jimmy Stewart (who Hanks has so often been compared to) who took the move to Westerns as an opportunity to remake himself as a darker, more cynical man, Hanks remains Hanks. (Or more exactly, Kidd becomes Hanks).
He combines a fundamental decency with a clear-eyed view of the world, and he does so primarily with his face. News of the World‘s dialogue is sparse, even as his sharing most of the screen with a co-star who speaks little English requires that Hanks carries most conversations as well.
The reality is News of the World is a Tom Hanks Western, much more so than it is a Paul Greengrass Western, who transforms his entire visual repertoire for his trip into the American mythology. And make no mistake, News of the World is straight up Western mythology and knows it. Greengrass seems to know it too, looking more towards the classic composition of John Ford or Anthony Mann.
The visual ticks Greengrass has used so often are missing; no shaky cameras, no claustrophobic action sequences, no attempts to mimic cinema verité or appear a document of real things. News of the World is straight up classic Hollywood and knows it.
And straight up classic Hollywood still works. It works because of the delicate work Hanks and Zengel do to forge a real bond. It works because Greengrass never gets in his own way and thus never makes us doubt what we are seeing.
And it works because it stands largely athwart the post-modern Western, mixing a little more humanity and a little less nihilism to remind us that the arc of civilization is also long and ultimately bends towards hope.
News of the World Review Score – 7.5/10
Universal Pictures will release News of the World in theaters on December 25, 2020. Directed by Paul Greengrass, the film was written by Greengrass and Luke Davies. It is based on the novel (buy at Amazon) by Paulette Jiles.
The movie was produced by Gary Goetzman, Gail Mutrux, and Gregory Goodman. The executive producers are Steven Shareshian and Tore Schmidt.