India — In a year when it has been proven that storytellers provide essential services, trust Tom Hanks to honour them in the grandest manner possible. News of the World, out on Netflix, is the actor’s third appearance in a streaming film in the last 12 months. It follows Greyhound, on Apple, and that unforgettable cameo in Amazon’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
America’s Dad is in proper paternal mode in director Paul Greengrass’ new drama, adapted from the Western novel by Paulette Jiles. He plays a Civil War veteran named Captain Jefferson Kidd, who makes a meagre living by travelling from frontier town to frontier town, reading the news to ‘anyone with 10 cents and the time to hear it’.
Captain Kidd lives a spare, solitary life, but in front of an audience, he transforms into a showman. News of the World is many things – a character study about a guilt-ridden man, a fable about fatherhood, a call-to-arms against right-wing propaganda – but I didn’t expect it to also be an origin story for prime time news anchors.
Fortunately, though, Captain Kidd is among the noblest characters that Hanks has ever played, which is saying something. He rides into town on his cart, checks into hotels owned by proprietors with whom he’s on a first-name basis, and then, in the evenings, he gets ready for the main event. Dressed in his Sunday Best, Captain Kidd sets up a desk with dozens of newspapers, hunches over them, and reads stories about famines and festivities, politics and people. His audience reacts as if they’re watching a movie; groaning and cheering at Captain Kidd’s tales.
On one of his lonely journeys, he comes across a crime scene. A young girl has been left behind. Her name is Johanna, and she doesn’t speak a word of English. Captain Kidd is unprepared to take care of a child, but he accepts the responsibility of escorting her to the nearest settlement. He learns that Johanna was raised by the Natives, after her German immigrant parents died when she was a baby.
Like Natalie Wood’s character in John Ford’s classic Western, The Searchers, she thinks of her tribe as her family.
There has been a critical reevaluation of Ford’s films in recent years, and a lot of it has been disparaging. “To say the least, I hate him,” Quentin Tarantino said in a 2012 interview, and accused Ford, seven years later, of peddling ‘white supremacy’ in his movies. Greengrass has described News of the World as ‘The Searchers in reverse’ – not about a mission to find the girl, but to bring her home. This is true, both in terms of narrative and politics.
News of the World retools that familiar ‘lonely man takes a child under his wing and learns valuable life lessons’ trope – we’ve seen it recently The Mandalorian, Borat 2, Palmer, and The Midnight Sky – but it never comes across as stale. Hanks’ chemistry with newcomer Helena Zengel, who plays Johanna, is phenomenal – but he is, after all, an actor who once conjured up chemistry with an inanimate object. Zengel is, however, an infinitely better actor than Wilson the volleyball. Without the strong emotional foundation to support it, all those other themes that News of the World attempts to address would’ve collapsed.
Greengrass retains his trademark handheld aesthetic, although it has been somewhat subdued by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; News of the World doesn’t have the shaky cam vibe of his Bourne films; it’s more glacial in its visual approach. That’s unusual for a Western, a genre whose visual language has been defined, for decades, by majestic crane shots and sweeping widescreen vistas.
He’s is a fascinating filmmaker. Each of his movies, regardless (and in spite) of their populism, is fiercely political. His Green Zone remains one of the most honest depictions of the Iraq War, and the sham that was the weapons of mass destruction argument. News of the World is equally critical of American expansionism, and makes sharp observations about the genocide of Natives.
In the film’s standout scene, Captain Kidd finds himself in a fringe militia colony, commanded by a lunatic who wants to cleanse America of ‘outsiders’. He orders Kidd to read an in-house puff piece about him, instead of actual news. Hanks plays that scene as only Hanks can, understated yet authoritative; a person you’d follow to the ends of the Earth.
News of the World is the actor’s third artistic attack against the Trump presidency, after The Post, and, I’d argue, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. As it turns out, Hanks’ political statements are just as graceful as the man himself.
News of the World
Director – Paul Greengrass
Cast – Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
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