News of the World, western with Tom Hanks

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in world news.

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks u World news.
Photo: Bruce W. Talamon / Universal Studios

World news could have been set in the post-Civil War in Texas, but it opens with a mention of an outbreak of meningitis and ends with a mention of an outbreak of cholera – a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) reminder of director Paul Greengrass that even when making fixed-point films in the past, they are ultimately as they are now. Based on the excellent Paulette Jiles novel from 2016, World news follows Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former Confederate Army captain, as he tries to translate Johanna (Helena Zengel), a ten-year-old German girl raised by Kiowa, back into what is left of her family. In the second era – even while the Western genre was a vessel for all kinds of myths about white settlements and civilization – the film could have been about the return of a lost, wild soul to the comfort of an imagined community. World news he has the elegiac mood and epic look of a classic western, but his civilizational vision is much more complex. No place in this film feels at home, neither for Kidd nor for Johanna. The stations on their journey seem increasingly stuffy, empty, violent, hellish. The two of them are nomads both practically and spiritually.

Kid’s job is to go from city to city reading audiences from all over the world. He mixes fragments of current events with evocative stories from distant lands, half-performing his narratives to increase the interest of the crowd. In his novel, Jiles makes it clear that this dead end job is all that this former printer could get. The film version of Kidd invests a little more nobility and strength in him: he understands the effect his stories can have on his audience, and during the film he learns to master that power more clearly. His stories tell of mysterious phenomena, miraculous inventions, political events – and they all serve to open up the world and perhaps even place the listener somewhere in it. As Kidd reads and his audience reacts, we feel as if we are watching the beginning of something unusual, new, and frightening: the beginnings of a connected, self-conscious society.

Kidd and Johanna, like many of Greengrass ’characters, spread across different tribes at a time of enormous change. He is a defeated, reluctant soldier from an army that no longer exists, with bad memories of a gruesome war, but he also accuses his stories of a sense of wonder and optimism that feels genuine. Hanks brings his usual kindness and disguised authority, but he also brings fatigue and melancholy: World news it feels like Old Man Tom Hanks ’first real film and it’s the most touching it has been in years. (I argue that this is his best work since his last collaboration with Greengrass, Captain Phillips.) Johanna, meanwhile, is torn from two different families – one German, one Kiowa – just as she is about to develop her identity. The most touching moment in the film finds her at the edge of a river, standing on a cliff in the rain, crying and begging for a migrating Indian tribe half visible across the water to take her back to her Kiowa family.

Meanwhile, all around our two rootless protagonists stretches the failed state of Texas, filmed by Greengrass with the wide-eyed eyes he brought in previous films to war-torn Northern Ireland and the post-American invasion of Baghdad. It is a country that alternates between vast spaces and crowds in cities teeming with divisions and threats, broken places filled with broken people. But this time, the director decides to give up the unfortunate, manual aesthetic of “wobbly cameras” that has begun to become a striking feature in some of his films. World news is terribly beautiful, with vistas you can get lost in and the result of James Newton Howard succeeding and trembling and erasing. It’s weird to see a 2020 western that actually dares to be a western, especially from a director who has specialized in emergency, high-tech, ripped thrillers for so long. But maybe it’s not such a weird combination. World news it has the pitfalls of an old-fashioned epic, but it also has a restless, modern soul.

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