British readers wondering why Tom Hanks is starring in a film about a defunct Rupert Murdoch newspaper – fondly known as The News of the Screws, because of its interest in kiss-and-tell stories – wonder no more. This western is called News of the World because that is the name of the novel it’s based on, by American writer Paulette Jiles. Simple as.
The film version is immediately reassuring on three counts. First, the look of it as it opens, honeyed light spilling from kerosene lamps in what is obviously a Western setting – props to DP Dariusz Wolski, who for a long time has been doing great work on what often turn out to be unloved films, like the Robert De Niro clinker Hide and Seek, Tim Burton’s unbearable Alice in Wonderland or the much-derided The Counselor (which I loved).
Double reassurance comes from Tom Hanks as the lead. He’s not been in an honest-to-goodness lousy movie for a very long time. Even The Da Vinci Code follow-up, Angels & Demons, was pretty OK (comparisons being handy here).
And there’s Paul Greengrass as director, another case of gold-plated, triple-lock excellence, with three Bourne films, United 93 and Captain Phillips all on a fairly slim feature-film CV.
The plot is steering a course between True Grit and The Searchers, with Hanks as a former Confederate soldier and printer by trade who now travels from one dusty frontier town. He brings with him the news of the world, reading extracts from the newspapers to people too tired to muster up the energy to read them themselves after a hard day scraping a living (as Hanks’s Captain Kidd tactfully puts it to what is doubtless a largely illiterate crowd). The hand-to-mouth existence is disrupted when Kidd comes across a racialised murder on the road, and ends up with a survivor of the violence under his wing, a petrified white girl who speaks the Kiowa language and is dressed in Native American skins.
She’s the only survivor of the murder of her family and has been living with the Kiowa ever since. In mismatched-companions plotting he has soon been charged with returning her to her only kin, an uncle and aunt 400 miles away. As the pair of them encounter trials on the way – bad guys with guns, treacherous situations, murderous weather and more bad guys with guns – the emotional temperature moves from mutual suspicion to something a lot warmer, as mismatched-companions plots tend to.
True Grit (tough cuss travels with smart girl) and The Searchers (tough cuss seeks niece abducted by Native Americans) are both John Wayne films and Tom Hanks, while playing Tom Hanks as he always does, also has a pop at playing a kind of Woke Wayne, a “the hell I am” tough nut who’s nevertheless a rationalist fond of book-learning and a respecter of people no matter their skin colour. In The Searchers Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was planning on killing his niece, to “rescue” her from the racial taint.
If the girl with Kidd looks familiar that’s because you’ve seen Helena Zengel, who plays orphan Johanna, in System Crasher, where the German actor gave a performance so spellbinding that it undoubtedly earned her the gig with Hanks. Here she’s playing a withdrawn, traumatised girl, all expressive big wet eyes. It’s quite a change.
Director Paul Greengrass earned his spurs making TV documentaries that aimed to speak truth to power. Those attitudes and techniques revolutionised the action movie in the Bourne films. Apart from a chase sequence when Greengrass reverts to the shaky camera and quick edit, he’s reaching for something different here, a John Ford-style big picture full of wide vistas and noble acts, with just a touch of Kelly Reichardt’s infatuation with the buckets-and-shovels depiction of the hardscrabble frontier life.
Greengrass has the looks down to perfection. This is the sort of film you could happily watch with the sound down. The pacing is a bit languid, though, or perhaps having largely rejected his usual techniques, Greengrass is struggling to come up with another way of suggesting urgency, without falling back on what he already knows.
It’s one of only two real niggles in a film that’s gorgeous, touching, well acted and fascinating. A bit more jeopardy wouldn’t have gone amiss either.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021