News of the World: Fit to Print, by David Bax
Paul Greengrass’ trademark, as anyone reading this knows by now, is a jittery, handheld camera meant to replicate the immediacy of being present in person for the events chronicled. In News of the World, working for the first time with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Greengrass has largely eschewed that aesthetic approach in favor of something more classical. While there is an abundance of drone shots–each generally illustrating the dawn of a new day on our protagonists’ long journey across Texas–this is an old-fashioned Western with broad but vital concerns that are as relevant to us now as to those living a century and a half ago.
It’s 1870 and former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) now makes a living traveling from town to town reading from current newspapers to paying audiences who haven’t the literacy or the time to stay up to date themselves. In between two such stops, he happens upon a young girl (Helena Zengel) who was raised as Kiowa by the natives who killed her family in retaliation for settling on Kiowa land. The occupying Union soldiers are too busy or too uninterested or both to look after her so Kidd takes it upon himself to escort the girl (named Johanna at birth but answering to Cicada now) to her nearest living relatives, an aunt and uncle on the other side of the state. She, of course, would prefer to be returned to the tribe, the only family she can remember.
And so we have a standard Western set-up, with a noble white man at its center and with natives spoken of (fearfully so) more often than heard from. But crucially (and in keeping with Greengrass’ sometimes journalistic ethos), the point of view of the characters is not the point of view of the film. News of the World certainly deserves criticism for being condescending in its lip service sympathy toward the natives that only exists at its fringes but the actual, violent threats faced by Kidd and Cicada/Johanna all come from white men who feel entitled to what they want. This leads to multiple opportunities for Greengrass to dabble in one of the more enjoyable tropes of Western action flicks, that of the old man who’s still got it when the flint strikes the steel.
At least Greengrass and co-screenwriter Luke Davies (adapting Paulette Jiles’ novel) find plenty to behold with a critical eye in their focus on white Texans in the aftermath of the Civil War. They are understandably hostile toward the Union army, the “Blues” whose continued presence is merely a bullying interference in the locals’ right to live their lives in their own way. These are the same white grievances toward government that exist today. Also like today, though, this modest white way of life remains dependent on keeping non-whites out of sight, forcefully if need be and without any regard to their own rights, be they constitutional or just plain human.
News of the World‘s central concern is an ironic one. How can Kidd say he’s taking Cicada/Johanna “home” when all the land they traverse together is undeniably the rightful home of someone else? This child, with her blood pulling her in one direction and her culture in the other, is more an allegorical tool than a character, her very existence posing the question of how we define home at all.
This film is just one story, though. It doesn’t offer any final answers. Instead it insists on the importance of being just that, a story. By telling and listening to stories like the ones Kidd shares, whether sad (97 Killed by Disease) or happy (Eleven Rescued from Mine Explosion), we learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. News of the World survives its own shortcomings by reminding us that that it’s only one of countless similarly tiny but important parts of the solution.