News of the World(2/15/2021)

If ever there was a year we needed Tom Hanks it was probably this one.  Hanks is about the closest things to a unifying force we have left: there’s no wild gossip about him, he always seems like a class act in interviews, and almost all of the films he appears in are consistently dignified and while he is willing to take roles that are flawed or darker than his public persona his onscreen presence is almost always that of a someone you just can’t help but like.  But 2020 has been kind of a weird year for him: right as it was dawning on the public that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to affect the world it was announced that he and his wife had contracted the virus, thus making them among the first celebrities to be affected by it.  But he recovered from that and while I don’t know about anyone else I certainly watched some of his older films that year and found him to be as soothing a presence as anyone.  Oddly enough this unifyingly beloved actor then became the center of some truly insane QAnon rumors, which kind of underscore just how delusional those people are. Anyway, the actual new movies he was in this year oddly also seem appropriate given how we were all looking to him to be something of a model American: he played a World War II soldier (well, ship captain) in the movie Greyhound and in his latest film News of the World he plays a cowboy of sorts, or at least an inhabitant roaming the old west, and in both of those roles he kind of modifies those archetypes into a more thoughtful and modern version of what both of those character types can be.

News of the World is set in Reconstruction-era Texas and focuses on a man named Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former confederate soldier who is now employed as something of a traveling bard who carries around newspapers from around the country and reads them to paying illiterate audiences town to town.  At one point during his travels he comes across a crime scene where a black soldier has been lynched by a local mob and left behind is a kid he was escorting, a white girl of about 10 or twelve who goes by Cicada (Helena Zengel).  Cicada was the daughter of German immigrants (originally named Johanna Leonberger) who tried to settle in Kiowa and were killed during one of the conflicts between the settlers and the Kiowa, who then took the child in and raised her under their traditions, but then the Kiowa were also killed by the military so by the time Kidd finds her she’s been orphaned twice over and is stuck between worlds.  The nearby troops basically take a “you found it you deal with it” attitude to Kidd’s situation and basically leaves him to escort this kid to an Indian Agent in a nearby town, but the travels that ensue prove to be fairly perilous.

News of the World was directed by Paul Greengrass, which is interesting given that he’s primarily known for very modern films that are at least partly “ripped from the headlines” like Captain Phillips, United 93, and Bloody Sunday and even his forays into Hollywood action movies have been movies like The Bourne Ultimatum which are still kind of trying to invoke things like the modern surveillance state.  So suffice it to say I did not really predict that he’d be interested in making a western but watching it things did start to make a little bit more sense.  The film is set in rather loaded period of history in which a divided country was sort of being forced to reconcile, which would seem to make it a fairly apt setting for a movie released in the December of 2020 and I can see why Greengrass would gravitate to it after having just made 22 July, which was a movie about rightwing violence.  Additionally, Kidd’s occupation of reading news articles to crowds that aren’t always entirely receptive to said news does kind of mirror modern day issues of people dismissing things as “fake news” when it isn’t what they want to hear.  That having been said, I’m not sure that the film really digs too deeply into many of these themes so much as it simply acknowledges them and then kind of moves on with the story.  The character of Cicada/Johanna in particular sort of feels like she isn’t rally explored too much more than other “whites raised by Indians” in previous westerns like The Searchers, Hombre, and Dances With Wolves.

Those who have taken issue with Greengrass’ “shaky cam” visual style will likely be pleasantly surprised that he’s adjusted his style quite a bit here.  While it might have been interesting to see him do a Public Enemies type thing with the material he has instead taken a more traditional and reverent approach to the western.  The film has some really nice cinematography and Greengrass and his team shot the film in New Mexico and got some really good scenery to be their backdrop.  Where the movie perhaps falls a bit short is in its structure which is largely episodic.  It’s established pretty quickly that it’s going to be a movie about Kidd and Cicada’s journey and they occasionally run into obstacles along the way that you think are going to end up being through lines for the rest of the movie but they end up getting resolved faster than you expect and I’m not sure that the sum of these events quite adds up to exactly the kind of character piece the film thinks it does.  Still, theirs is something pretty interesting about the way the film looks at this genre in a new way by making its central cowboy an older and more literate hero that we usually get in the western and having him ultimately act as a father figure for this kid is also a neat twist.  I don’t think this is going to go down as one of the great neo-westerns, but it’s close to being in that league and is defiantly worth watching.

**** out of Five

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