Intentionally or not, Westerns have a strange way of reflecting our contemporary political and sociological conditions. Consider Sam Peckinpah’s brutal 1969 game-changer, The Wild Bunch, which portrayed a rapidly changing world and a generation of Americans resistant to its machinations. Or 1992’s Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award winning classic is not only the most honest depiction of the human frailty behind violence ever filmed, but was made during a time when gun violence was unprecendted in this country. Eastwood even said that he modeled Gene Hackman’s sadistic sheriff character after Los Angeles’ Police Chief Daryl Gates. Now we have News of the World, a much more nuanced and less raucous exploration of a country undergoing an identity crisis.
It’s 1870, Witchita Falls, Texas, five years after the Civil War ended. The country has been torn apart, nobody trusts their fellow man, much less the press, and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) stands before an audience of harried and rain-drenched town’s folk as he reads them accounts from several newspapers. His audience is enraptured, not only by Kidd’s garish and droll elocution, but by the news itself. Some are downright pissed about Texas succeeding to the Union. They’re sick of being told what to do by the federal government. The recently freed slaves and immigrants are to blame.
Kidd calms them down and says he understands everyone’s hurting; it’s a painful time. Kidd is good at controlling a room and reassuring his listeners. This is his trade after all, traveling from town to town, reading newspapers for a small fee. Call him the Walter Cronkite of the West. In one of his most nuanced and distilled performances, Hanks plays Kidd as a quietly mournful former ex-infantryman. He walks with a weary gait, as if he squandered the best of himself in a war he never believed in. Hanks might be Hollywood’s “everyman,” but this time he’s a broken “everyman.”
One day, Kidd comes across an upturned wagon and a petrified 10-year-old Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) hiding inside. She appears like an alien, almost feral in behavior. After making inquiries, Kidd learns that Johanna is of German descent, but can only speak Kiowa, the tribe that killed her family and kidnapped her six years prior. Realizing he has no recourse, Kidd decides to take Johanna to a community of German farmers located 400 miles in south Texas. This is the story of their journey- an emotionally shattered ex-Confederate soldier and a precocious immigrant girl traveling across a politically and psychologically fractured land. There are obvious parallels to our present condition, but News of the World does not preach, nor take sides, but simply explores the variables of hate and empathy in a divided country.
Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, director Paul Greengrass abandons his signature handheld, vigorously edited bravura, which put him on the map with movies like United 93, Captain Phillips (his last collaboration with Hanks) and two of the Bourne films. This time Greengrass opts for a more fluid, contemplative approach. News actually has an antiquated, classical texture, as if it were directed by the likes of a John Ford or Budd Boetticher. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (The Martian) stretches the canvas with painterly Western landscapes peppered with cattle and dust clouds, while occasionally plunging us into dark and gritty cow towns or work camps. The soundtrack by James Newton Howard is both grass roots and epic in tone. A quarter of the way in, you might realize you’re watching a classic Hollywood movie, cinematic in scope and written with fully realized human characters. Finally.
Impressive cinematography and authentic production design aside, News of the World’s success depends on the emotional alchemy of its protagonists. Although Johanna can’t speak a word of English, she demonstrates the survival instincts of the warring Kiowa tribe she was raised by. She bristles at wearing a dress. She eats with her hands. She can come up with interesting weaponry on the fly. Meanwhile, Kidd studies her unusual behavior with bewilderment. Although their bond is both comical and insightful, News is far from fuzzy or saccharine.
On their expedition, they encounter a team of ex-Rebels led by a creepy Michael Angelo Calvino who attempts to kidnap Johanna for his own precarious means. They meet a self-aggrandized buffalo hunter (Thomas Francis Murphy) who forces Kidd to read a preposterous account of his past heroics to his workers (bolstered “news” at its finest, sound familiar?) and a group of Kiowa Indians in a dreamlike sequence involving a dust storm. There is violence and gunfights aplenty, but more importantly, we invest in our heroes’ journey, which unspools like a lyrical odyssey in a bleak and dusty underworld.
The film is not without hiccups. The narrative would’ve benifitted from truncating or even eradicating a couple of action sequences. With some additional quieter moments, News could’ve dug a little deeper. Still, when the filmmakers take time to accentuate the eccentricities of these characters, the problems fade in the background. These are two disparate souls flung together in a hostile and virulent environment; we root for them.
This is Tom Hanks’ first Western and he really nails it. You almost wonder why he hasn’t starred in ten of them before. With his reticent and wistful stare, he brings a classic American gentility to General Kidd, a widower who’s had men die under his watch but still believes in the power of journalism and communication. “You see those words,” he says, showing Johanna a newspaper. “Printed, in a line, one after another, put them together… you have a story.” You get the feeling Kidd has found refuge in those stories since the war ended. Still, Hanks wouldn’t be able to work his magic without stunning newcomer, Helena Zengel. Her performance is a marvel. With her icy blue eyes and hardly a word spoken, Zengel conveys the immigrant experience with equal measure tenderness and hardwired grit. Cinematically, it’s a thrill to watch them play off each other like two veterans.
News of the World might not be original, but it’s one of the year’s best films. It takes place nearly 150 years ago, but it speaks to present-day America, torn apart by chaos and distrust, and suffering from a post-Civil War hangover. If there is a message to be gleaned here, it’s that stories and communication matter, probably more than ever, but it’s even more important to step outside the shelter of those stories and engage with humanity.
News of the World will be released in select local drive-in theaters on Christmas Day. There’s still no word when it will stream.