News of the World, a western with Tom Hanks

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in News of the World.

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in World News.
Photo: Bruce W. Talamon / Universal Studios

World News can be set in post-Civil War Texas, but it starts with the mention of an outbreak of meningitis and ends with the mention of an outbreak of cholera – a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) reminder of director Paul Greengrass that even when he does films set at a fixed point in the past, they are ultimately about how things are now. Based on Paulette Jiles’ excellent 2016 novel, World News follows Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former Confederate army captain, as he tries to transport Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old German girl raised by the Kiowa, back to what remains of her family. In another era – at a time when the Western genre was a container for all sorts of myths about colonization and white civilization – the film could have been about the return of a lost and wild soul to the comfort of an imaginary community. World News he has the elegiac humor and epic appearance of a Western classic, but his view of civilization is much more complicated. Nowhere in this film feels like home, neither to Kidd nor to Johanna. The stops on his journey seem increasingly suffocating, empty, violent, hellish. These two are nomads practically and spiritually.

Kidd’s job is to go from city to city reading newspapers from around the world to the public. He mixes bits and pieces of current events with evocative tales from distant lands, partially staging his narratives to increase the crowd’s interest. In his novel, Jiles makes it clear that this dead-end job is all that the former printer could achieve. The cinematic version of Kidd invests him with a little more nobility and power: he understands the effect that his stories can have on his audience and, throughout the film, he learns to exercise this power in a more incisive way. His tales speak of mysterious events, wonderful inventions, political events – all of which serve to open up the world and perhaps even put the listener somewhere in it. As Kidd reads and his audience responds, we feel as if we are watching the beginning of something strange, new and frightening: the beginning of a connected and self-conscious society.

Kidd and Johanna, like many of the characters in Greengrass, occupy different tribes during a time of enormous change. He is a reluctant and defeated soldier from an army that no longer exists, with bad memories of a horrible war, but he also loads his stories with a sense of admiration and optimism that seems genuine. Hanks brings his usual affability and discrete authority to the role, but he also brings tiredness and melancholy: World News it looks like Old Tom Hanks’s first real movie, and it’s the most moving film he’s made in years. (I would say it’s your best job since your last collaboration with Greengrass, Captain Phillips.) Johanna, however, was taken from two different families – a German, a Kiowa – just when she should be developing her identity. The most moving moment in the film finds her on the edge of a river, standing on a cliff in the rain, crying and begging for a migrating Native American tribe partially visible across the water to take her back to her Kiowa family .

In the meantime, our two rootless protagonists stretch across the failed state of Texas, which Greengrass films with the wide-eyed immersion he brought in previous films to war-torn Northern Ireland and the post-US invasion of Baghdad. It is a land that alternates between immense spaces and crowded cities that teem with division and threat, destroyed places full of destroyed people. But this time, the director chooses to renounce the unbalanced aesthetic of “camera shake” that has started to become a highlight in some of his films. World News it’s frighteningly beautiful, with views in which you can get lost and a soundtrack by James Newton Howard that wobbles, shakes and shivers. It is strange to see a western in 2020 that really dares to be a western, especially coming from a director who has been specializing in urgent, high-tech thrillers for so long, torn from the headlines. But perhaps this is not such a strange combination. World News it has the trappings of an old-fashioned epic, but it also has a restless, modern soul.

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