There are at least two shots in News of the World that are framed so that the screen is bordered by black on all sides. Both instances look uncannily like a movie being projected on a screen. I’m not sure Paul Greengrass, the British director behind Captain Phillips (2013) and three instalments of the Bourne series, meant to imply this, though it would be touching if he did. More likely, the long separation from movie theatres has me seeing cinema screens where there aren’t any.
News of the World, adapted from Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel of the same name, reunites Greengrass with Tom Hanks, who gave one of his most resonant performances in Captain Phillips. Here he plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, formerly of the Confederate army, now making a hard living travelling from town to town, reading the news to whoever will pay. The year is 1870; the Civil War, though over, still looms large, with Union soldiers stationed everywhere and Kidd booed when he reads from a northern newspaper.
The specter of slavery looms, too, most directly when, leaving a small town after one of the readings, Kidd comes across a black Union soldier hung from a tree, with a sign on it that reads ‘Texas says no. This is a white man’s country’. In the bushes nearby, he finds a young girl, with blonde hair, in native American clothes. Her name is Johanna; the soldier was likely transporting her home when they were attacked. She has lived with the Kiowa tribe since she was an infant, after they killed her family and abducted her. She speaks no English, only Kiowa and a word or two of German, a stubborn remnant of her first family. Kidd tries to hand her back to the authorities but they’re too overwhelmed to care about a ‘stray’. Reluctantly, Kidd decides to return her to her surviving relatives.
News of The World is a Western, and Greengrass indulges the genre’s self-referential tendencies. Johanna’s abduction by Indians recalls John Ford’s The Searchers (Greengrass does a version of the famous John-Wayne-framed-in-the-doorway shot). Kidd tries to leave the girl in a town called Red River, the title of another Wayne classic. There’s a wonderful prolonged shootout in the mountains, with Michael Covino playing one of those psychotic Western villains driven less by material gain than an existential desire to disrupt. And there’s a stirring moment I would’ve loved to see play out longer: Kidd and Johanna arriving in town, he on his horse, she on foot, unperturbed as a herd of cattle bustle past her, James Newton Howard’s banjo theme building to a crescendo.
The film conjures up an America with disparate factions—Union, Confederate, immigrant, native American, African American—at war or in uneasy alliance with each other (parallels with the country’s present state, probably intended, don’t land with much force). Despite Dariusz Wolski’s handsome photography and a series of escalating setpieces—a shootout, a town run by racist militia, a sandstorm—the film misses the tautness of Greengrass’ other works. There’s nothing surprising about Hanks as another soft-spoken American hero, and nothing disappointing either. All great American actors end up doing a Western at some point in their careers. Hanks isn’t a natural fit—he’s all soft corners and the genre’s all edges—which is probably why it’s taken more than 35 years. But he’s perfect for Kidd: a decent man driven by a sense of duty, haunted by his failings. From first frame to last, a beautiful weariness clings to Hanks, as if he can see his end just up the road but must head towards it anyway. As the twice-orphaned Johanna, Helena Zengel starts out almost feral before gradually softening towards Kidd. To see her smile at the end of the film is stunning, like someone switched a light on in the room.
'News of the World' is streaming on Netflix.