Known for the visceral, “shaky-cam” immediacy of a vérité style that’s proven bracingly chaotic in some movies (“Captain Phillips,” “United 93”) and utterly nauseating in others (“The Green Zone”), director Paul Greengrass might seem ill-suited to direct a Western — to work in that most sweeping and stoic of American genres. But “News of the World” isn’t much interested in telling a story about the way this country tends to burnish its bloodiest chapters into myth.
Adapted from Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name, this weary and unvarnished road trip through Reconstruction-era Texas tells the story of two lost souls who are struggling to free themselves from their memories and find a way to become whole in a dusty nation that’s never been exactly generous with its healing. If Greengrass’ broadly entertaining (if gallingly relevant) film is a bit too soft and spread thin to hit with the emotional force that it could, so much of its simple power is owed to the grounded nature of the director’s approach, which allows these desperate characters to feel as if they’re trying to escape the very genre that threatens to define them forever.
It also doesn’t hurt that Greengrass hired director of photography Dariusz Wolski — a Ridley Scott regular — to steady his hand and help him find a happy medium between “Bloody Sunday” and “The Searchers.” “News of the World” might wagon over some rough terrain on its 400-mile odyssey from Wichita Falls to Castroville, but there’s no reason a nice Western starring dad mode Tom Hanks as a haunted Civil War vet should require a barf bag because of its camerawork. Lucky for we queasy sorts, the rest of this movie is also restrained in a way that allows for its potentially mawkish premise to unfold with easy grace, and for its unmissable commentary on today’s America to feel more inevitable than opportunistic.
Time is a flat circle that we tend to perceive as a straight line, but Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) is afraid of what might happen if he stops moving forward. Schlepping from one Texas border town to another like an old shark that’s outlived its appetite, the bearded journeyman travels around with a sheaf of newspapers in tow and reads their stories to whatever crowds he can find for 10 cents a head (roughly $2 at the current rate). But Kidd is more Tom Hanks than Walter Cronkite, and so he tempers the political stuff that might enflame his agitated Confederate audiences with other morsels that might inspire a feeling of solidarity with their fellow man.
Some of those tidbits are as grim as an outbreak of meningitis, while others are Tom Sawyer-like tales about men showing up to their own funerals and such. Telling other people’s stories prevents him from having to confront his own, and Kidd’s silence on the matter leaves us to guess at the horrors he saw (and likely perpetuated) in the Civil War and draw certain assumptions about why he’s not with his wife in San Antonio. It’s hard for a man to find peace in a country that refuses to stop fighting with itself, or to heal in a country that can’t help but pick at its scabs.
It can be just as hard for a pre-teen girl to do the same, though Cicada (“System Crasher” star Helena Zengel) is one of the only 10-year-olds who might be able to recognize Kidd’s demons. They meet by chance on a dirt road somewhere, as Kidd comes across the lynched body of a Black serviceman left behind as a warning for other former slaves and any Northerners who might be sympathetic to their cause; the only Black character in a movie that’s narrowly focused on nice white people who don’t identify with their own kind.
Cicada — a headstrong beanpole known as Johanna Leonberger before the fair-skinned blonde was taken in by the Kiowa tribe who killed her German immigrant birth parents — certainly falls into that category. Cicada’s identity is as complicated and unsettled as that of the country around her, and her past stained with so much of its violence. She’s an orphan twice over by the time Kidd reluctantly agrees to pick up where the murdered serviceman left off and deliver the girl to her aunt and uncle. He doesn’t know it yet, but they’re both going in the same direction.
It goes without saying that Hanks — peerless as ever, and the captain now once more — is excellent at playing Kidd’s tortured dignity, and so indivisibly humane that it’s hard to recognize the role he served in the Confederacy (a shot of Hanks squinting into a periwinkle sunset or blowing dust off an old cup is all it takes for Kidd’s heartache to resonate as if it were your own). The movie needs you to take it for granted that Kidd rejected slavery even as he slaughtered innocent men to defend it, and you do, but the character is so palpably cursed and unable to forgive himself that it doesn’t quite feel as if Greengrass and Luke Davies’ script is letting him off the hook that easy.
Cicada, or Johanna, or whatever it’s ultimately right to call her threads a similar needle between archetype and specificity. The girl only speaks Kiowa, and she behaves according to the customs of her adoptive tribe, but the movie never mistakes her differences for “wildness” in the way that some of its duller characters might. Zengel isn’t feral, even when she’s playing afraid; her performance is smart and heartsick from the very beginning, and the language barrier doesn’t blunt our sense that she longs to reunite with the Kiowa despite understanding that she could never be one of them (less certain is Greengrass’ decision to keep the indigenous people at a ghostly remove, like the elves migrating towards the Undying Lands in “The Lord of the Rings”).
Hanks and Zengel inhabit their characters with such mottled clarity that “News of the World” can speed through a lot of the cringe-worthy cliches that such a mismatched pair must survive on their way to becoming friends (or family). At an all-too-recognizable time when everyone in America seems to be scared of each other, Kidd and Cicada tap into a mutual rootlessness; they’re both looking for a home they can keep, even if they can’t speak to what that might entail. The bond between them is limited by the narrow road it travels, but at least there aren’t any painfully drawn-out scenes of Cicada trying to run away or anything like that, while the obligatory gun fight that bonds them together is so drawn-out and well-staged that it transcends the raw utility of its place in this story (it’s enough to overlook the dreadful CGI boulder that rolls through the middle of the sequence).
“News of the World” travels fast — fast enough that you can literally see the wheels coming off Kidd’s wagon — and the A1 story it tells on the way there seldom digs much deeper than a good headline. While the detours offer a more complete picture of a country divided against itself (brace for the lengthy pitstop in a town ruled by a self-appointed business king who publishes his own newspapers), the film only moves forward on the strength of its moral velocity, and it lacks the muscle needed to reach the end of the journey without getting tired.
The bumpy road back to themselves finds Kidd and Cicada forging an uneven path through some new memories — a path draped in the dull colors of real life and potholed by actors with great faces, all of whom get to shine for a scene or two before the movie rolls along. The best of these cameos belongs to the great Bill Camp, who Greengrass saves the latter for a third act scene that shows how two great performers can elevate an exposition dump into an emotional gut-punch. These are the moments where “News of the World” is at its most urgent — when this bittersweet but richly sentimental Western pauses to reflect on the double-edged power of the stories we tell ourselves, and the power that telling them to each other gives us to change what happens in the next chapter. Everything else is just copy.
Universal Pictures will release “News of the World” in theaters on Christmas Day.
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