News of the World

 

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Tom Hanks is reunited with director Paul Greengrass in a peerless Western that reflects the 

times we live in.


News of the World

Spreading the word: Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel

  

In Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017), Tom Hanks played Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post. Here, he’s a different kind of newsman, and these are different times. Adapted from the titular novel by Paulette Jiles, News of the World is set in 1870, a year in which most people were ignorant of the outside world, many of them being illiterate. So a former printer takes it upon himself to ride from town to town across the Old West, to deliver the news of the world. Like any modern anchorman, he breaks his performance into local and global bulletins, culminating in a novelty item to leave his listeners smiling. However, beyond the newspaper headlines, Paul Greengrass’s grown-up Western paints a world beset with crime, viral outbreaks, murder, bigotry, racism – even sex-trafficking – as well as talk of breakthroughs in transport. It was all so long ago. It was the year that the phonograph was invented, the first typewriter was manufactured, Wagner’s The Valkyrie was premiered in Munich and Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

 

Most Westerns follow a rigid formula. But Paul Greengrass doesn’t do formula. Indeed, it’s a brave man to cast Tom Hanks in a stetson. Greengrass previously directed Hanks in Captain Phillips, and here the actor plays Captain Kidd, formerly of the Third Texas Infantry, who seeks to change the world he encounters with encouraging doses of education. Then, as now, newssheets were produced to warp the worldview of the common man, rarely in the latter’s interest. “These are difficult times,” notes Kidd, who has seen his share of wrongdoing and tragedy. When he encounters a young, blue-eyed girl abandoned in the woods, he is at a loss to identify her origin. Judging by her apparel, she has been reared by Native Americans, as her grunts in the Kiowan language quickly confirm. So Kidd and the girl are forced to find a rudimentary, physical shorthand which, for a man of words, proves a new challenge.

 

In spite of immediate dissimilarities, News of the World has much in common with George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky. Both are star-driven Netflix releases that bring fresh resonance to their respective genres – the Western and science-fiction. Both feature solitary older men who rely on the technology of their time to keep in touch with the outside world. And both are forced to revalue their existence by the unexpected introduction of a young girl. And in both films that girl is virtually mute, although their respective features speak volumes. Clooney, the director, was blessed with the presence of his young co-star, the incandescent Caoilinn Springall. Likewise, Paul Greengrass has stumbled upon a remarkable talent with Helena Zengel, his twelve-year-old leading lady who, as the girl – aka Cicada and Johanna – evolves from a wild animal into a savant beyond her years.

 

As to be expected from the director of Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s News of the World is a work of character with a meticulous attention to detail. While Greengrass adheres to the broad tropes of the horse opera, there is a lived-in, modern approach that brings the period and place alive. Whether it is Kidd routinely attending to the wheels of his wagon, or Cicada/Johanna filling the cartridges of his scattergun with coins – to make it more deadly – this is a world that feels owned and credible. And yet it is also the world that we live in today, what with the manipulation of the media, a fear of minorities and a zest to conquer new frontiers. Seldom has a Western felt more pertinent – or more of a warning.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Angelo Covino, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Fred Hechinger, Bill Camp, Thomas Francis Murphy, Gabriel Ebert, Neil Sandilands, Winsome Brown, Tom Astor, Jeffrey Ware, Truman Hanks.

 

Dir Paul Greengrass, Pro Gary Goetzman, Gail Mutrux and Gregory Goodman, Screenplay Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, Ph Dariusz Wolski, Pro Des David Crank, Ed William Goldenberg, Music James Newton Howard, Costumes Mark Bridges, Sound Michael Fentum.

 

Perfect World Pictures/Playtone/Pretty Pictures-Netflix International.

118 mins. 2021. Rel: 10 February 2021. Available on Netflix. Cert. 12A.