Netflix UK film review: News of the World
Strong and subtle screenplay9
Zengel’s remarkable performance9
Ian Winterton | On 08, Feb 2021
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Thomas Francis Murphy
Watch News of the World online in the UK: Netflix UK
As he did for action movies with The Bourne Identity director Paul Greengrass does with News of the World for the Western – not so much an act of reinvention as reinvigoration. As Bourne was recognisable – and better than – a James Bond-style spy action-thriller, here News of the World feels like a traditional dad-friendly Western that, in many ways, one could imagine John Ford helming. It’s all lush landscapes and frontier towns, through which a lonely but principled hero – very much a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant – makes his way. But at the same time it’s a Western that could only be made now.
It’s Texas, 1870, a state reeling from being on the losing side of the American Civil War. Tom Hanks is on top form as Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a good man who is psychologically – and physically – scarred by war, bringing to mind his role as another thoroughly decent soldier in Saving Private Ryan (earning Hanks an Oscar nomination, as News of the World surely will too). As Kidd tells a Union patrol early on in the movie, he served as captain in the 3rd Texas Infantry and “surrendered, Galvaston, 26th May, 1865”. Now, ostensibly to make a living (but more just to keep moving lest he be forced to face the demons of his past) Kidd travels from town to town reading from a bunch of newspapers to the illiterate folk.
Speaking very much to the two Americas – and based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, published just as Trump came to power – the film’s Reconstruction-era setting is very apt for the modern-day United States. The grievances and anxieties of many living below the Mason-Dixon line are seen here in their protean form: the “Northern Blues” are very much an occupying army, and the 2nd Amendment is suspended – no firearms, save shotgun shells packed with birdshot are permitted. We see the uglier side, too, with news that slavery is officially banned in former Confederate States greeted with outraged booing. And later, far worse.
It’s testament to the stunning screenplay by Greengrass and Luke Davies that Kidd’s personal thoughts on the War are never expressed verbally, but are hinted at via his actions, and those he finds himself in opposition to. Early on, for instance, he comes across a Black man, lynched, and takes the time to bury him. Despite having found himself fighting to leave the Union, Kidd seems very much in favour of reunification and healing. He is, in short, like most of us: a victim of his times. He considers the tragedy at the heart of both the story and Kidd’s soul to be punishment from God, “a judgement – for all I have seen and all I have done”.
In a trope common to Westerns, this broken man is offered the chance of redemption. Immediately bringing to mind the hero’s quest in The Searchers, Kidd chances across a young girl, lost in the wilderness, having been “liberated by Union forces” after years brought up by Native American tribe, the Kiowa. Originally named Johanna (a remarkable turn from System Crasher star Helena Zengel), she speaks only Kiowa – subtitles inform us that she identifies as the “Daughter of Turning Water and Three Spotted” – and, once old memories emerge, her native German. Kidd’s friend and sometime-lover Ella (played brilliantly by Elizabeth Marvel) speaks a little Kiowa, and is able to discern that Johanna is “an orphan twice over”.
Finding himself charged with a girl whose tragedy matches his own, Kidd feels duty bound to return Johanna to her aunt and uncle. An odyssey across the Southern states ensues. It’s a captivating film, epic in scope – both thematically and visuals – told in episodic form. Everything you’d expect from a Western is present and correct – nail-biting gunfights, God-fearing townsfolk and Native Americans (of which more later) – but there’s so much more, too.
Consciously exploring our own age of fake news and misinformation, making Kidd a newsreader is inspired. (“It’s not a rich man’s occupation,” he declares, with an irony intended for us, as some of the richest – and most influential people – today made their fortunes in news.) Through him we see the good that can come of an informed populace, as disparate townsfolk empathise with people struck by misfortune whom they’ll never meet.
But the movie’s main themes coalesce in its final third, as Kidd and Johanna ride into the County of Erath, where bandit-turned-demagogue Mr Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) holds sway. The epitome of American – and particularly Southern – individualism, Farley has declared Erath an independent nation, free of the Union. It is, of course, merely an excuse for Farley to get fat off the backs of his gullible followers.
Rounding off what is already a deeply satisfying, serious-minded Western is its portrayal of Native Americans. In a film focusing on the power of news and stories to shape a nation for good or ill, the screenplay – augmented by Greengrass’ bravura direction – deliberately shows the “Indians” obscured by darkness, distance or, in one mesmerising sequence, a sandstorm. It’s as though these people – about to have a final and decisive genocide inflicted upon them – are fading into myth before our very eyes.
The Kiowa language, too, is integral to the film. With the exception of Ella, no one bar Johanna understands the language, yet the audience is made privy to her words via subtitles. This adds a further layer of meaning, as if a scene’s subtext is being spoken out loud. One particularly powerful moment comes when Johanna is brushing a horse, singing a Kiowa song, the words we read on screen declaring the essence of the film’s theme: “We make a stand – or we fall forever.” For the Kiowa and other tribes, that fall is coming, but for the United States – simultaneously a beacon of democratic cooperation and a Republic founded on slavery and genocide – it is a clarion call to turn away from darkness.
News of the World is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.