Writer-director Paul Greengrass’ latest film is an exceptionally well-crafted post-Civil War Western.
Echoes of gritty ‘70s revisionist westerns – think Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, or Robert Benton’s Bad Company, or Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller — reverberate throughout News of the World, writer-director Paul Greengrass’ richly detailed, strongly acted and exceptionally well-crafted post-Civil War western.
This uncommonly compelling film marks a reunion for Greengrass and lead player Tom Hanks, who last collaborated on Captain Phillips, the fact-based, Oscar-nominated 2013 drama that cast Hanks as the commander of a container ship overtaken by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Here, Hanks plays a captain of a different sort, a sixtysomething former Confederate officer who, while traveling throughout 1870 Texas, plies his trade as a kind of nonfiction storyteller, regaling audiences in isolated communities with “news of the world” he draws from newspapers that may not be readily available (or, the film strongly suggests without hammering home the point, that his attendees may be incapable of reading).
As Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, Hanks vividly illuminates the various facets of a lion in winter who is equal parts instinctive entertainer and weathered warrior. On the surprisingly few occasions when we actually see Capt. Kidd amusing and engrossing his rapt listeners, we sense a stealthily shrewd showman who knows precisely how to dress to project courtly authority, and when to pause for effect or emphasize for impact. His talents serve him well as he manages to calm an angry group of Texans chafing under the Reconstruction Era restraints of an occupying army — and, later, during the film’s most potently suspenseful sequence, as he rouses an even angrier mob with all the subversive oratorical skill of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony.
Early on, News of the World emphasizes that Kidd only very reluctantly is a man of violence. (Again, without belaboring the matter, Greengrass and Hanks make their point: The captain has seen enough of death in a brutal war to last him a lifetime.) At the same time, though, he also is a man of honor. When he happens upon the horrific aftermath of a lynching in the wilderness along the way to his next engagement — a Black man hanged by white racists who left a proudly defiant note on the corpse — Kidd discovers the victim had been transporting Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old white girl who was captured and raised by Kiowa, back to her biological kin hundreds of miles away.
Mind you, the girl has only dim memories of her parents and sister, who were killed during a Kiowa raid, and she’s none too happy about being separated from the only real family she’s ever known. But there’s something about Capt. Kidd that makes the girl warily trust him — despite her remembering little English, and his understanding only slightly more Kiowa — and there’s something about the girl’s situation that makes him, despite initial misgivings, decide to help her complete her journey. “The girl’s lost,” he says, as though trying to convince himself as much as anyone else. “She needs to be home.”
Greengrass and co-scriptwriter Luke Davies have taken several artful liberties with their source material, the same-titled best-selling novel by Paulette Jiles, but News of the World retains the basics of Jiles’ original narrative, being the picaresque story of two lost souls making their way through long stretches of a country not yet reunited after the furious disruption of a Civil War, and encountering extremes of selfishness, savagery and generosity.
When push comes to shove, each of these travelers proves to be formidable and resourceful while defending themselves and each other — it’s up to Johanna to show Kidd that the dimes he collects for admission are a terrific substitute for birdshot — and that gives the film’s two major action sequences an impactful human dimension. Just as powerful, however, is a gun-free, near-surreal sequence, brilliantly shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, in which other characters appear almost as apparitions during a dust storm to aid the pair.
With the invaluable assistance of production designer David Crank, costume designer Mark Bridges, and other members of a world-class support team, Greengrass persuasively places his drama in a realistically rendered 19th-century Texas where even the “the bustling city of Dallas” seems to be a place where civilization has not yet firmly taken root, and shootouts are all the more riveting because the period-appropriate weapons are not entirely reliable.
The being heart of News of the World, of course, is the slowly forged bond between Kidd, a man so haunted by his wartime experiences that he stoically accepts tragedy as “judgment for all I have seen and all I have done,” and Johanna, an emotionally scarred child who, after being torn from two different families, is aptly described by a sympathetic onlooker as “an orphan twice over.” The pitch-perfect emotional interplay between Hanks and Zengel, the seasoned veteran and the promising newcomer who bring out the best in each other, recalls the fascinating give-and-take between director-star Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Cargol in Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970), a not-dissimilar story about a learned man’s efforts to bestow the profoundly mixed blessings of civilization on a youngster who, all things considered, might be better off unbound by those constraints. Their characters may be hard-pressed to communicate through words, but they express themselves with affecting stripped-to-essentials eloquence.
Standouts in the strong supporting cast include Michael Angelo Covino as Almay, a vicious trafficker who views Johanna as a product to be sold or savored, or both; Thomas Francis Murphy as Mr. Farley, the self-appointed ruler of a small town who makes the grave mistake of thinking he can coerce Kidd into enhancing his image with the Wild West equivalent of fake news; Fred Hechinger as John Calley, a naïve Farley henchman who gets a shot at redemption when he aims in the right direction; and Elizabeth Marvel as Mrs. Gannett, the worn but warm-hearted owner of a livery stable and boarding house who offers hospitality to Kidd and Johanna, and gives each of them what they need.
It should be noted, by the way, that this outstanding film is the very first western Tom Hanks has ever made. The two-time Oscar winner definitely earns his spurns here. But, then again, so does everyone else involved in News of the World.
In this featurette, Hanks, Paul Greengrass, and second unit director Jeff Dashnaw discuss the defining elements of a classic western — and how they do them justice in their film.