Carving out a life in the Wild West might leave little room for keeping up with news from across the land. “There is no time for stories,” says a melancholy farmer near the climax of director Paul Greengrass’s “News of the World.” Yet even after fending off lawless bandits, old age, and the untamed elements, a cowboy-hat toting Tom Hanks would beg to differ.
Greengrass' flick follows the perilous journey of a Civil War veteran and an orphaned child across the harsh late-nineteenth century Texas desert. Though it is not entirely without excitement, the film seems to share many qualities with its two central characters: tired, a little dusty, and searching for a place to call home in an environment that favors the capable and action-inclined. Yet an emotional wisdom shines through the travelers’ unassuming dispositions, and the film surprises viewers in a similar way. “News of the World” transcends its modest Western derivation to deliver a poignant tale about building connections where humanity is scarce, affirming the beauty and importance of storytelling along the way.
Lacking a particularly broad or nuanced cast and spotlighting two of the frontier’s less romantic inhabitants, "News of the World" feels simple compared to other action-packed blockbusters within the Western genre. The film centers on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) — an ex-Confederate soldier reading news aloud to townsfolk across Texas who gather for his nightly presentations. While en route to the next town, Kidd stumbles across Johanna (Helena Zengel) — an orphaned girl being escorted to distant family, incapable of speaking English. Johanna’s wagon driver was lynched by still-bitter Confederate locals, and Kidd is informed the Union can’t provide immediate shelter for her. Seeing no alternative, Kidd volunteers to transport her himself.
For the townsfolk to whom Kidd reads, news of the world means news from around Texas; what doesn’t affect them is not of great importance. Yet the film successfully illuminates a great deal of period-specific topics within this small setting. Farmers and laymen, vested in work clothes and crowded into candlelit taverns, express outrage at news of Union troops’ extended stay in the South. Boasts from unscrupulous opportunists reveal the grim extent of bison-hunting operations in the West. Even Johanna’s complicated backstory speaks to the turbulence of frontier life: Born to German immigrants, raised by the Kiowa Native Americans who slew them, and orphaned once more when her Kiowa family was in turn murdered, Johanna is a child of the territorial violence spawned by American Westward expansion. Kidd roams from town to humble town, traversing miles of empty plains in between; yet Greengrass and fellow screenwriter Luke Davies manage to weave a rich and immersive historical narrative into the film, seamlessly dropping viewers into a tumultuous era of American history.
These historical movements, no matter how dynamic, are less easily appreciated when first observing Kidd and Johanna’s rather cliché relationship — a predictable if not completely banal development as the two bridge gaps in language and age. Two stubborn, trauma-hardened souls begrudgingly accept each other’s company only to realize the true value of said company after enduring countless trials together, becoming unlikely allies. Sprinkle in a dash of mutual reckoning with past demons and Wild West-themed obstacles, and “News of the World” delivers a lesson best served lukewarm: The journey is more important than the destination.
Yet there’s something decidedly welcome about the gentle nature of a message so trite. Between viewing the dried blood splatters of Johanna’s parents and the gruesome aftermath of her wagon driver’s lynching, “News of the World” pulls no punches. Viewers must find respite from the brutality of the frontier in the characters’ playful attempts to translate English to Kiowa and a charming dispute over how to ration sugar — scenes that would have otherwise been considered dull and unnecessary. These distinct moments of intimacy are accentuated by a contrast between the large, unforgiving world and its lonely, mortal inhabitants. Sweeping panoramic shots of the desert serve to intimidate and impose, while close ups on Kidd’s weathered hands and Johanna’s steely eyes allow viewers to admire the sliver of humanity managing to get by — his hands a little shaky, but deliberate; her eyes a little weary, but attentive. The unsteady camera work highlights this humanity: Kidd and Johanna will undoubtedly struggle, yet they continue to move forward with gritty determination. It is the resolve of two small people in the face of myriad threats that renders their journey worthy of our attention.
Audiences familiar with director Paul Greengrass may recognize techniques like shaky camera work as staples of his filmography — an oeuvre of frantically-paced hits like “Captain Phillips.” Shaky footage and twinkly-eyed Tom Hanks aside, viewers find in “News of the World” a subtle departure from Greengrass’s earlier work. Even the action present in the film pales in comparison to such hyper-focused sequences as a Jason Bourne fistfight or “United 93”’s passenger revolt. “News of the World” is instead much more attuned to its hauntingly beautiful Western atmosphere, accommodating the breadth and magnitude of the plains in such a way as to make the efforts of the film’s protagonists all the more impressive. More natural and less frenzied, “News of the World”’s cinematography represents a skillful stylistic adaptation to accommodate a new environment for Greengrass.
Kidd and Johanna’s story is quite similar to those in the local papers that Kidd reads — small, fleeting, isolated. It may not resonate with those beyond rural Texas, but the combined wisdom of Kidd’s battle-tested heart and Johanna’s child-like intuition tells us that’s okay. Even the smallest tales — and sometimes especially the smallest tales — have value. Whether it’s an update on the activities of neighbors in the next town over or a blossoming relationship between unlikely survivors of the Wild West gauntlet, “News of the World” reminds us that there’s always time for a story.
— Staff writer Charles W. McCormick can be reached at Charles.McCormick@thecrimson.com.