A period film can also be a document of the era in which it was made. Soldier Blue is inspired by the 1864 massacre of two Native American tribes by the US army, and M*A*S*H is set in the Korean War, but the release of both in 1970 positioned them as commentaries on Vietnam. The boldness of Maurice (1987) had as much to do with it being made at the height of the Aids crisis, and on the cusp of Clause 28, as it did with anything on screen or in EM Forster’s novel.
Emerging at the end of the Trump presidency, and adapted from a novel (by Paulette Jiles) published at the start of it in 2016, News of the World is well placed to consider the years in between, not least the administration’s assaults on press freedom. It is 1870, and the embers of the Confederacy are refusing to die out in the American South. Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) roams the land reading aloud from newspapers for folk too busy or uneducated to peruse the pages themselves. Should the news not be to the audience’s liking – Jefferson causes a ruckus, for instance, by reporting on the abolition of slavery – there is every risk the messenger might be shot.
Life is already hazardous enough when Jefferson happens upon an upturned wagon and a frightened, platinum-haired child (Helena Zengel) babbling in an unfamiliar tongue. Federal documents reveal that this is Johanna, who was kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe six years earlier and raised as one of them before being liberated during a violent army ambush.
Jefferson believes he has been cursed by his wartime experiences, while Johanna is accused of having a hex on her. Clearly, these lost souls are made for one another. Before anyone can say “You complete me”, Jefferson vows to deliver the girl to her nearest relatives 400 miles away. “Why are you doing this?” someone asks, only to be met by a helpless look. A Tom Hanks silence is very different from the sort you get from Robert Mitchum. A wordless stare from Mitchum tends to have one meaning: get stuffed. Whereas from Hanks, it says: I’d tell you, if only I could.
The universal affection towards Hanks risks obscuring what a precise, responsive actor he is. More than anything, he is always profoundly interested. Watch the scene in which Jefferson and Johanna are teaching one another words from their languages. It is Hanks’s curiosity, his intentness as he watches and listens, which lends him definition. His humanity as an actor can make a movie breathe, just as his character’s readings introduce empathy and enlightenment to corners of the country that are steeped in mist and murk.
Many fine Westerns, notably The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Unforgiven, have interrogated the mythology underpinning the genre, but that isn’t quite how storytelling functions in News of the World. It connects communities, and any suppression of it indicates a deficit of morality or imagination. Look at Mr Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), a vicious despot who insists, Trump-like, on the illegitimacy of any news that neglects to lionise him. Johanna, on the other hand, grasps the value of the word “story” straight away.
Showing the girl her first newspaper, Jefferson says: “See all those lines printed one after the other? Put them together and you have a story.” Lines matter to him. They provide the template for American life, where you travel from A to B, find some soil and plough it in a straight line. Johanna, meanwhile, illustrates the Kiowa approach by embracing the air, clutching to her breast the enormity of the land and sky, the past and present.
Perhaps the film’s British director and co-writer, Paul Greengrass, has created in Jefferson his first self-portrait. Most of his films, among them Bloody Sunday, United 93 and Captain Phillips (with Hanks as another Captain), are ripped from the front pages. If he sees himself as Jefferson with a movie camera, someone harvesting the factual, then that’s far from all he is. It’s no great surprise that the director of three Bourne movies can stage a shoot-out, but his knack for investing action with meaning is highly unusual. In one sequence, the gunplay starts on open ground and proceeds up the side of a mountain, before taking a turn for the subterranean. It’s as though Greengrass is digging into the geological structure of the Western itself.
He gets revealing work from an exceptional cast, including 12-year-old Zengel, who gave an incendiary performance in System Crasher last year. The divine Elizabeth Marvel has a handful of scenes as Mrs Gannett, an innkeeper who teaches Jefferson parenting by example. He tries to prevent Johanna from eating with her fingers, whereas Mrs Gannett improvises a bib for the child instead. When diners look on suspiciously at Johanna singing Kiowa songs at the table, Jefferson orders her to stop; Mrs Gannett simply rebukes the adults for staring.
News of the World has many of these wise, unforced moments on its way to a final scene in which the on-screen audience applauds wildly. My sentiments exactly.
“News of the World” is streaming on Netflix
News of the World (12A)
dir: Paul Greengrass
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair