“The Searchers” (1956)
“True Grit” (1969)
“Smoke Signals” (1998)
“Reel Injun” (2009 documentary)
“Captain Phillips” (2013)
“News of the World” stars Tom Hanks as a Civil War veteran. The film arrives for Christmas and is being packaged as an Oscar hopeful in this pandemic awards season.
“News of the World” is set five years after the Civil War has ended. Hanks plays Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of three wars. With no wars to fight now, he has taken to traveling through Texas and reading newspapers to crowds of people who will pay a dime each to listen.
But during his travels, he is asked to deliver a 10-year-old girl called Cicada, but whose birth name is Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel). She had been taken in by the Kiowa tribe six years earlier and raised as one of their own after they apparently killed her immediate family. But Johanna has no interest in being returned to her biological aunt. Reluctantly, Kidd accepts the task and heads out on the road with his equally reluctant ward.
Directed and co-written by Paul Greengrass, “News of the World” is not a bad film but it is a film of missed opportunities and a kind of ho-hum familiarity.
The film is based on Paulette Jiles‘ novel of the same name. Although I have not read the book, I do know that her story focused on two things the film chooses to almost completely ignore. First, it is the winter of 1870, and Kidd is sharing the news that the 15th Amendment has been ratified and will extend the right to vote to all men and he explains to the crowd in the book, “That means colored gentlemen, he said. Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks. He turned his head to search the crowd of faces turned up to him. I can hear you muttering, he said. Stop it. I hate muttering.” He sees spreading this news as a duty that is being interrupted by his need to deliver a hellion child to her relatives. And second, the book explores what it was like for children raised by Native Americans and then returned to white civilization.
These are elements that could have resonated in interesting ways today.
Kidd traveling through an America that’s still painfully divided in the aftermath of war and trying to raise awareness of voting rights feels timely as we look back to Reconstruction and try to understand some of the roots of what we now see as systemic racism. He sometimes crosses paths with people who don’t want to hear enlightening news from other places but rather only news from their own insular community that reaffirms their own narrow beliefs.
It’s also interesting to have someone reading newspapers and holding listeners rapt with news presented as engaging stories.
But instead of focusing on these aspects, Greengrass focuses on Kidd’s task of delivering Johanna and the predictable action involving nefarious sorts trying to steal the girl from him and wicked relatives who want nothing to do with her. The film, as well as the book, recalls “True Grit” in its pairing of an old man and spirited young girl, and “The Searchers,” in its journey of a man trying to return a girl to white society. But sadly Greengrass misses the elements that made those stories work so well and only seems to keep the formulaic plot points. We don’t get the larger than life characters of “True Grit” nor do we get the complex emotional nuance of “The Searchers.”
In the book, Kidd derived pleasure from culling through stories to pick the ones to share and we get none of that sense in the film. Exploring what news was like at a time when many could not read or could not access papers could have been both interesting and fun. Kidd’s relationship with Johanna goes through a familiar kind of Helen Keller-Annie Sullivan’s battle of anger and mistrust ultimately leading to a genuine bond of friendship.
A film like “News of the World” just makes me wonder why Greengrass wanted to adapt this book now. Why adapt a book and leave out its most fascinating and complex ideas? And why adapt a book like this at this particular moment in time? A film looking to a Civil War vet traveling through the South with a white girl teaching us lessons about Native Americans just feels a bit out of touch especially when the writing is so mundane and the plot so blandly formulaic.
Greengrass and Hanks partnered more successfully on the film “Captain Phillips,” which was inspired by a true story of modern-day pirates taking over a ship. But here Greengrass fails to build the intensity of action as he did in “Captain Phillips” nor does he give us the kind of narrative depth that makes us feel like the time we have spent with the film was worthwhile. Greengrass taps into Hanks’ on-screen and off-screen persona as a nice guy and hopes that we’ll just enjoy his company.
As a film planned for Christmas release it also tries to tap into a sentimentality that it doesn’t fully earn and an ending that seems to ignore the challenges both these characters were facing in their lives.
To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.