(NEWS OF THE WORLD is on Netflix Nordic starting February 10th)
Once Upon a Time in the West
NEWS OF THE WORLD, directed by Paul Greengrass, is a delightful and emotionally rewarding revisionist western that knows exactly the story it wants to tell. It’s a simple and down to earth film, nonetheless surprising in its substance and subtlety as it disrobes genre conventions to connect the past and present in a thoughtful and prescient way.
Tom Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a former confederate soldier a few years after the civil war, who now travels the unified, but emotionally broken country reading the news to people who can’t or don’t have the time to do so themselves. His show brings communities together for brief moments to experience the outside world, and there’s a sense that no matter how big or small the stories are, they matter because of their connection to a country most won’t get to see.
On the road, Kidd encounters a scene of brutal carnage, leaving behind only a sole survivor: Johanna, a young German girl once kidnapped by the Kiowa, who now belongs to no tribe. Integrating into her new community over the years, Johanna no longer speaks English or German, and her understanding of the ever-expanding new America is tenuous at best. Nevertheless, she sparks a light inside of Kidd, who takes it upon himself to take her home to distant family back east.
An acting masterclass
The film unfolds in an episodic but not disconnected series of adventures, as the duo makes their way across a wasteland of post-war Ameria. During the journey, they encounter desperation, lies, strife, and, ultimately, goodness as they search for a place for both to call home.
Hanks, always a treasure, grows into a better, more subtle actor every year. As Kidd, he carries an immense burden from the war, and his internalized trauma serves as much of the fuel that drives him. Even as he plays a showy proto-vaudevillian with his news act, Hanks keeps his cards close to the chest, letting the remarkable geography of his weathered face and weary eyes do most of the work. It’s one of his better performances and a sterling reminder of why he remains a star through the decades.
Equally impressive is Helena Zengel as Johanna. Already making an impression in the heartbreaking SYSTEM KILLER just a year ago, Zengel is every bit up to the task of carrying the picture alongside Hanks. Their relationship feels natural, and Zengel imbues the difficult role with maturity and pathos well beyond her years.
The good kind of revisionism
NEWS OF THE WORLD is the kind of revisionist western I’ve come to love over the years. It discards the tropes of noble savages and glorious settlers and instead dives headfirst into deciphering the trauma left behind by America’s violent conquering. While the story could quickly turn into another narrative of the white man’s burden, Greengrass quickly subverts expectations by refusing to lionize either society, even as he doesn’t shy away from the atrocities.
Simultaneously, the film is not an all-encompassing take on America’s birth nor the fading of the frontier. Its scope is strictly limited to what Kidd and Johanna experience and the subjective view gives the film an Ulyssian feel that is both hypnotic and elegiac. There’s an epistolarian element to Kidd arriving in town to read his news, and Greengrass stages each encounter to feel worn and alive. We barely get a sense of who everyone is, yet the brilliant cast sells a deep history between them in a few short sentences.
Greengrass is also not coy of using parables to the modern world, most notably in a story about a small-town dictator, who demands Kidd read the news only from his locally approved paper. How the story unfolds may strike some as naive and painfully optimistic, but there’s also something profoundly touching about it too.
Advances, none miraculous
Thematically, while the story does shy away from the more unsavory implications (Kidd is a former confederate, after all), there is a darker undercurrent that is not unwelcome. Inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s prose, moments on the road depict bleak horrors that have become commonplace, making them that much more terrifying.
Oddly, the film both stumbles and succeeds in its depction of Native American culture. It’s a success in allowing Johanna to speak Kiowa and for the story to acknowledge the presence of a multitude of tribes and cultures within America. But other than that, the Natives are barely a presence in the story, remaining on the sidelines as an ethereal concept fading into the wind.
Granted, this isn’t that story, and it’s already a step forward for the Western to even acknowledge the genocide the country is built upon, but one hopes for better representation.
It’s a shame that NEWS OF THE WORLD won’t screen in cinemas because of the pandemic. It’s the kind of mature, handsomely built film deserving the luxury of the big screen. While the story spins small, the canvas that Greengrass paints on is grandiose, and the illusion so total that a darkened theater would only emphasize how perfectly it fits. But even on the small screen, Hanks and Zengel shine bright.
At an unnatural time, NEWS OF THE WORLD feels like the perfect communal experience, even when shared at a distance.