Everyone has PTSD in this Tom Hanks Western about Reconstruction in Texas
I saw the News of the World movie. This is a Western starring Tom Hanks, and directed by Paul Greengrass, who also directed Hanks in Captain Phillips. In News of the World, Hanks also plays a captain, only this time his name is Captain Kidd and he’s a traumatized Confederate veteran of the Civil War. The time is 1870, the place is Texas, and everyone has PTSD. Captain Kidd goes around from town to town, reading the news to the busy and illiterate citizens of Texas. Sometimes he sighs and looks at his old face in the mirror. This is a fine but sad film about tough reckonings in difficult historical times.
NEWS OF THE WORLD ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
Running time: 118 min
The movie begins its plot when Hanks, while driving his news wagon, runs across Johanna, an orphan girl. Johanna has been through some shit. The Kiowa slaughtered her German immigrant farmer family and adopted her. Then soldiers slaughtered her Kiowa family. Then racists slaughtered the free Black man tasked with transporting her to safety. Luckily, she runs across Tom Hanks, who no one ever slaughters, and the two of them have a Western adventure while he tries to take her to her boring farmer aunt and uncle.
News of the World is a modern revisionist Western. It doesn’t have the stylistic trickery or flair of Django Unchained, the most entertaining modern Western. And it also lacks the arched eyebrows of the Coen Brothers’ recent Westerns like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or their remake of True Grit, whose plot News of the World’s somewhat resembles. While I would take Django or Buster Scruggs over News of the World any time, News of the World doesn’t really aspire to those kinds of stylistic heights. Instead of taking its cues from postmodern irony, its casts its gaze back longingly at the classic Westerns of John Ford, or to films like Shane.
But even though those films were morally complex, Greengrass out-morally complexes them in News of the World, to the point of muddling his film’s themes. His Texas is occupied territory, in the midst of Reconstruction. Phalanxes of Union soldiers march about, giving orders to Texas citizens who don’t like it. Some things never change. Newly freed blacks walk about, unwanted, casting wary eyes. And, most of all, the white man is occupying Kiowa country. The Native Americans move through the landscape like vanishing ghosts, obscured by rain and dust.
The trauma of the war is everywhere. People are scarred, desperate, and searching for meaning. Johanna is the movie’s orphan, but history has orphaned everyone. Still, in the midst of the movie’s Deep Meaning, and somewhat boring getting-to-know-you wagon rides, there are plenty of action sequences and exciting set pieces. Bounty hunters stalk Captain Kidd and Johanna among the boulders for 20 minutes. A visit to a buffalo-hunter county drips with menace and evil. There’s a big dust storm and a runaway wagon sequence.
Greengrass, last seen recreating the horrors of a Norwegian terror attack for a Netflix film, backs it all up with gorgeous and varied Texas landscapes that rate among the most beautiful ever filmed. They should include this film in the six mandatory Texas history classes that the state will require all Texas students to take if there’s ever school again. Texas never looked so good, apparently because Greengrass filmed the movie in New Mexico. It would have been nice if Johanna and the Captain stopped off at a Buc-ee’s along the way.
The German 12-year-old actress Helena Zengel is quite good as Johanna, the most spunky and befreckled preteen girl on screen since the golden days of Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neal. And, of course, you can’t discount the Tom Hanks factor. News of the World features a vintage Hanks performance, full of soulful gazing, meaningful speeches, and funny anecdotes. Hanks can handle the action scenes as well. He doesn’t play a tough-guy superhuman, but he’s nimble and intelligent and makes all the right decisions at the right times.
It’s hard to imagine this movie without Tom Hanks. Then again, it’s hard to imagine any movie without Tom Hanks. He should read us the news every day. It would sound a lot better than when Lester Holt does it, or Amazon’s Alexa.
News of the World is currently only in theaters so it can get its inevitable eight Oscar nominations, but will be available for streaming soon.
This concludes my review of the News of the World movie.