News of the World

News of the World

2020, PG-13, 118 min. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Neil Sandilands, Chukwudi Iwuji.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 25, 2020

To understand the present, one must understand the past. To understand the past, one must understand what was different there, and that's the path to understanding the connections. So when you see Captain Jefferson Kidd (Hanks) reading extracts from the daily papers in candlelit rooms to residents of towns and cities in post-Civil War Texas, it seems alien. At the same time, he has the gravitas of an evening news anchor. He's somewhere between a respected man of letters and a traveling sideshow act, and he's fully aware of his tenuous situation in life. "It's not a rich man's occupation," he explains, which is why he finds himself in the unexpected position of taking a lost child to her family.

Lives are in limbo in The News of the World, Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies' adaptation of Paulette Jiles' 2016 novel of the same name. Johanna (Zengel) has been raised by the Kiowa so long that she barely remembers her German birth family from whom she was taken. (Comparisons to The Searchers are inevitable, but also historically accurate, as Jiles based her book in part on real cases of child abduction during raids.) Now her adoptive family is dead, butchered by white men in a cycle of violence, and she has no idea where this strange man is taking her.

With New Mexico filling in suitably for a pre-metroplex North Texas and the Hill Country before urban sprawl, it would be easy to imagine the Captain and Johanna crossing wagon trails with the pioneering women of Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, or sharing quiet communion with Ethan Hawke's PTSD-riddled gunslinger in Ti West's lamentably underseeen In a Valley of Violence. She is borderline feral, carrying so many levels of grief that it's hard to tell who she even is. Hanks' Captain, however, is easier to grasp because he is part of Hanks' grand pantheon of good men who live in both shadow and light. Yet that doesn't mean there is no nuance, and Kidd feels like an ancestor of Saving Private Ryan's Captain Miller – a man who is adept at violence but will only use it as a last, mournful resort.

Unfortunately, he is surrounded by men for whom violence – or at least its implicit threat – is muscle memory. Of course, this being a neo-Western, a gunfight is inevitable, but Greengrass' version is slow, inaccurate, tragic. This is where Greengrass' real purpose gently unfurls, in a complicated depiction of an America of divisions and strife, of Southerners resentful of what they see as unfair occupation by Northern forces, of petty local dictators that believe that only their news is fit to be repeated. It's not hard to see the metaphor but it's also not heavy-handed.

While Greengrass' Texas is a place where naivety can get you killed, he still finds a place for trust and healing, expressed through the growing interdependence of Kidd and the kid. Our trauma, News of the World tells us, is not something we can box away. We cannot simply turn the page and pretend it never happened. But we can decide which stories we continue to tell.

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News of the World, Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Neil Sandilands, Chukwudi Iwuji

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