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Non-Review Review: News of the World

News of the World is a gentle and sweet modern western, albeit more than a little disjointed.

Adapted from Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name, News of the World is essentially an update on the classic western template exemplified by The Searchers. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a veteran of the Civil War who makes his living travelling through the Southern United States, reading the news to assembled crowds. On one journey, Kidd comes across a carriage that has been destroyed. Its driver has been killed, and its sole occupant – a young girl – abandoned.

“Jo, hanna! Time to go!”

Kidd determines that the young girl is named Johanna. She was taken from her parents when she was very young and raised by the Kiowa tribe. She was recently recovered, and the army is attempting to send her back to her last surviving relatives. Of course, with her escort killed and the Union forces scattered trying to manage Reconstruction, Kidd finds himself tasked with caring for the young woman and ferrying her across the nation to reunite her with her mother’s extended family.

There’s a surprising and endearing warmth to News of the World, which largely comes from casting Tom Hanks in the lead role. In some ways, this feels like the movie’s most telling update to that classic western formula, replacing John Wayne’s true grit with Tom Hanks’ hanksian decency. News of the World is perhaps a little too episodic and too uneven for its own good, occasionally feeling like a more mainstream counterpart to something like The Sisters Brothers, but it works largely thanks to the central performances of Tom Hanks and his co-star Helena Zengel.

Horsing around.

News of the World is hardly subtle about being a broad metaphor for contemporary America. Indeed, Kidd’s profession practically invites comparisons to the current moment, when so much news is just misinformation thrown out via social media, telling people what they want to hear. It’s hard not to long for the certainty of a figure like Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (or even just Tom Hanks) to discern truth and to present – to borrow a phrase from an earlier Hanks vehicle – “just the facts.”

Indeed, News of the World presents a vision of America divided. The inhabitants of the southern states resent the Union for imposing their cultural values, for insisting that the losers of the Civil War renounce slavery and accept their defeat. There are mercenaries and opportunists scavenging through the aftermath of this conflict, hoping to turn a quick profit from the carnage. There are points where this becomes particularly heavy-handed, with Kidd forced to read propaganda pushed by a tinpot despot in a particularly grotesque corner of the nation.

News to him.

However, News of the World works best when it largely avoids this heavyhanded commentary and focuses more on the journey that Kidd and Johanna undertake across the nation. News of the World is a fairly conventional western in terms of costuming and production design. However, director Paul Greengrass and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski opt to shoot the film with handheld cameras, to give the movie a sense of intimacy that contrasts with more traditional and more formal westerns.

Indeed, News of the World is refreshing in its portrayal of frontier life. Production designer David Crank builds a world that is recognisably and archetypally western, but which is also more naturalistic than the surroundings in which these stories usually unfold. The towns visited by Kidd look like they have yet to take root, primitive constructions that jut out of the landscape like alien invaders. River banks are not neatly delineated, the water spilling over into the mud and drowning the weeds, as if the boundaries on this world are yet to be set.

The original newsreader you can trust.

Indeed, while the use of handheld photography is occasionally disorienting and jarring, it lends the movie a naturalistic look that helps to underscore the more genuinely heightened sequences. There are a number of striking establishing shots that look over a landscape that is still relatively untouched by human hands; herds of cattle stream into towns like a force of nature, while buffalo wander freely on the plains. These aerial shots suggest a different world, and integrate well with the more grounded sequences shot in close-up with a camera that seems to shake in the wind.

More than that, the emphasis on naturalism and realism allows for Greengrass to push the film into some more abstract directions, providing a sharper contrast with the more surreal imagery. At one point, Kidd and Johanna drift into a camp where the locals have been harvesting the buffalo. It is like something from a fever dream, as the carcuses are stacked high and trains are loaded with bones by lamplight that barely penetrates the industrial haze. It is a waking nightmare, and one which evokes the industrialised horrors that would follow into the twentieth century.

Overlooking nothing.

These sequences lend News of the World an enchanting and lyrical quality. At several points in the film, Kidd and Johanna encounter Native Americans. However, these sequences are often blurred and obscured, as if two worlds have briefly come into alignment before inevitably diverging again. Johanna screams across a roaring stream to silhouettes moving in the night, begging them to take her with them. Later, Kidd glimpses another group through the haze of a sandstorm. In both cases, these figures are moving in the opposite direction, fading into history.

Throughout News of the World, Kidd and Johanna argue about the future. Kidd argues that the settlers build their worlds in straight lines, always going forward; roads, rivers, streets, railway lines. This is the illusion of progress. There is only the future. After all, what else if the myth of the frontier but the belief in the idea of forward. In contrast, Johanna argues that the Kiowa taught her that the world was a circle, that backwards and forwards are linked. “To go forward,” she explains, “you have to remember.”

Hanks for the memory.

This is the tragedy of Kidd – and perhaps of the nation being constructed around him. Kidd is a veteran, but he is also a wanderer. He repeatedly insists that he never went home after the end of the Civil War. Instead, he just kept moving forward. By coincidence, Johanna’s family lives near his old homestead, providing Kidd with a chance to return home to make peace with the past that he tried so hard to abandon.

Kidd is not the only character to have let go of his past. At one point, the pair stop in at a hotel owned by Ella Gannett. Ella runs the establishment by herself, after her husband left her to journey westward in search of profit. Maybe he found it, maybe he didn’t. Whatever happened, he never came home. It seems likely that he never looked back either. Beneath Greengrass’ naturalistic approach to the material, there’s something lyrical and poetic in this story. The contrast works effectively.

You gotta be Kidding.

That said, there are some problems. Like so many westerns, News of the World reduces its marginalised characters to abstract metaphors to comment on the state of the world, rather than developing them into fully-formed characters. The displaced Native Americans are only ever seen at a distance and at a remove, through the eyes of the settlers. The film is undoubtedly sympathetic to them, but it makes no room for them. (Kidd summarises the situation, “Settlers killing the Indians to take their land. Indians killing settlers for taking it.”)

Similarly, the film alludes repeatedly to the aftermath of slavery in the South, most notably with the revelation that Johanna’s original escort was lynched for being a black man travelling without a white escort through the region. However, there’s never any attempt to unpack how Kidd feels about this, about whether he still feels any attachment to “the Cause” in the wake of the conflict. News of the World trusts Tom Hanks to imbue the character with a sense of underlying decency, but it still feels somewhat underdeveloped and under-explored.

Grazing us with his presence.

Still, News of the World handles these themes better than comparable films about the aftermath of the Civil War like Free State of Jones. A large part of this is down to the casting of Hanks, who still embodies an American ideal that anchors the film. Kidd comes across as a fundamentally decent soul in an indecent time. Hanks also works very well with his co-star Helena Zengel, who carries a lot of the movie’s emotional arcs with considerable skill and grace.

That said, News of the World occasionally feels a little too disjointed or uneven. Early in the film, Kidd explains his business to Johanna; there are words on a page, and when they are assembled they become a story. This emphasis on the importance of stories as a tool to bring people together – and to structure chaos – is somewhat undercut by the episodic nature of News of the World. The film moves from one sequence to another without any sense of escalation or purpose. These episodes are obviously linked by theme and geography, but they are also largely disconnected.

Still, there’s a lot to like in News of the World, which offers an interesting modernist spin one of the most familiar stories in one of the most iconic of American genres.

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