By Rachit Raj
News of the World is exactly what you expected when the news first came out that Tom Hanks is going to be cast in a Western. It is simplistic, not in a bland way but in a manner that makes you pause, and take notice of everything that the film is trying to say in its little, quieter moments.
The film has a few action set-pieces and the rusting, dry setting sets the stage for the genre it belongs to, but News of the World is a story of humanism, and love, beyond anything else. It is a story of the good that resides in humans. The good that is nurtured even in a rustic, relentless life of a lonely man with limited means. This is where Hanks comes in handy, achieving the aspired humanism in a setting often utilized as a show of aggressive, toxic masculinity.
The story is quite simple. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a former member of the Confederate Infantry, who now earns a meager living by going town to town and reading news to the locals. The crux of the story follows Jefferson as he tries to take a young girl belonging to the Kiowa tribe, whom he calls Johanna (Helena Zengel), encountering political peripherals and bruised hate in an era when divided lines brewed like wildfire. Yet, in a time of derived hate and consumed mistrust, director Paul Greengrass and writer Luke Davies carve a story of love in the most rugged, dusty eras of American history. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, the film, however, is more about the little moments than the larger arc of kinship across language, and culture, that it takes about.
There are multiple ways to read a story. One way of looking at News of the World could be an account of a man driven by the white man’s burden to look after the natives in pursuit of self-gratifying greatness. It would be an apt estimation with enough textual evidence to support the argument. But as I went through the movie – especially a section where Jefferson presents a story of rebellion to his audience – I understood the story differently. The story, much like Hanks-starrer The Post, speaks of the worth, and design of news in a turbulent society. In one of the best scenes of the film, Jefferson trails off from the prescribed newspaper, and offers his audience an alternate news piece from another newspaper – a story of a bourgeoisie group rising against the rich masters. It is a moment of communal rage threatening to topple the status quo of the town. One that reflects at the power of choosing the right story to read from the newspaper. Something that strikes a chord, not a rehearsed moan.
This is important, because somewhere between these lines printed on the newspaper, there is a story lost in its way. Jefferson speaks of death, war, and destruction, not realizing that buried beneath that is his story with Johanna. A chronicle of love, that is subtler than the accounts of dramatic flair he finds in the newspaper. A story like his and Johanna’s goes unnoticed, while those of bravado, and mystery find centre-stage.
The same goes with the film, too. The appearance of the film is decidedly Western. And yet, the story of two unlikely, bruised individuals bonding is a fascinating anti-thesis of the very genre the film belongs to. There is not one big, bad villain; there are no rowdy men romanticized as clichés of a cowboy. This is a simple, heartfelt story that decides to wear the attire of a Western, rather than forcing its clichés and characteristics on it just for the sake of it.
Ultimately, though, News of the World belongs to Hanks, and Zengel. Zengel gives a remarkable performance, matching Hanks every step of the way in a film that demands a lot more from her than what other child actors are asked to do with limited words, and props. On the other end is Tom Hanks, who somehow tends to make the softness in him work even today. Like in his best of works, Hanks lets his eyes speak of a pain he carries. A pain revealed much later. He plays Captain Jefferson with a tired resignation to the crumbling world, and yet, he clings on to his instinctive goodness by a thin thread. Hanks is in top form here, and delivers a performance distinctly deeper, and more profound than his previous Greyhound. He scrolls through the film with such ease that one is never reminded of the clutter-breaking humanism that is at show in the heart of the films’ narrative.
News of the World is the kind of film that makes you take a look at the hate spewing around us. It makes us want to know the stories that are edited out of the final print of the newspaper that is delivered on our front door. It is a film that reminds us that a genre is not a tightly bound cage, but a mere beats that give ample scope for innovation, and creative freedom if a pool of talented artists sit together, and aim to explore a world often hidden behind the easier, more accessible appearance of a genre.
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