When I envisioned another collaboration between filmmaker Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks after their piracy true story Captain Phillips, a western seemed outside of the realms of possibility with the slow melodic musings of such a genre seeming outside of Greengrass’ previous body of work. Known for tense thrill rides, from spy conspiracy thrillers like The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum to a retelling of the Norwegian terrorist attack of 2011 in 22 July. Greengrass is a master of pacing and each of these films plays up the tensions of quickly developing situations thanks to it. Representing a shift in perspective for the director and a welcome one at that, News of the World is rarely tense but consistently in tune with a new America struggling to repair amid deep divisions following the civil war, a timely story for the current climate but one that stands on its own thanks to a simple road movie structure and a charming odd couple pairing.
Set five years after the end of the war, Captain Jefferson Kidd (Hanks) has found a living travelling from town to town in Texas recounting stories from across the world, reading local, federal and worldly news to townsfolks looking to get away from their worries and avoid the hardships this new poorer south presents, stuck in a state still trying to sustain itself after the ravishes of war. Kidd himself has his own feelings about this new Texas that stands before him. When he encounters Johanna (Helena Zengel), a young girl on the road he is confronted with someone he shares a kinship with as he begins to learn her story as a German child taken from her parents by Kiowa raiders six years prior. Lumbered with the task of getting her back to the only remaining family she has hundreds of miles away, despite her determination to reunite with her new Kiowa family. Both struggling through the unforeseen side effects of war, Kidd and Johanna find an understanding on the road.
Based on the novel of the same name by author Paulette Jiles, Greengrass’ script along with writer Luke Davies here has narrowed the focus of the novel, instead concentrating on the duo’s differing approaches to survivors guilt and shame and how each leans on the other on the road to recovery. It’s a script light on dialogue but tightly plotted to avoid any unnecessary detours. Despite the constant intimation of danger, its in the solitary journeying that Kidd and Johanna feel most natural and at home. Although the occasional moment of action emerges as Kidd faces off against bandits or whole communities unwilling to accept the new rule of law seek to co-opt his performances for their own gains, Hanks is never better when quietly deliberating on how to communicate on a lonely stretch of road. His scene partner, fresh off her star turn in Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher here is the perfect choice in a role almost the polar opposite of System Crasher’s boisterous Benni, here giving an air of hard fought maturity to the often monosyllabic but physically communicative part. While at times Hanks feels like the safe choice here, America’s everyman father figure, a guiding hand in a character that should feel directionless, his charisma sees him through the occasional fumble of character.
The real guiding hand here however is Greengrass and how he lets these performances bind with shots of untouched American wilderness to set the isolationist tone of this family piece. Wonderfully shot by frequent Ridley Scott collaborator and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Greengrass imbues this Texan wilderness with a sense of adventure and the impoverished and preyed upon southern towns Kidd visits with a lived in look, towns trying to recapture an American spirit lost through years of war and recuperation. Greengrass uses this intimate tale to tell a bigger one of the various different tales of recovery hiding behind doors of the towns Kidd visits, the ones that may be similar to Kidd’s own but left just out of frame. The divisions here, while more pronounced and coated in blood, allude to a present day America just as divided with even Kidd trying to figure out his own morality and politics moving from place to place.
Moving away from his almost documentarian filmmaking shows that Greengrass is more than the ripped from the headlines stories he has mined up to this point for inspiration. Instead he uses his past to tell a new story while linking it to a relatable struggle for unity. What begins as a simple road movie effortlessly turns into a film that behind the conflict and animosity seeks to bring people together. A new adventure for the director proves to be a refreshing experience all around and yet another highlight for an impressive 12 year old actor with a bright future ahead of her.