In this discombobulated time, period western “News of the World” (December 25, Universal) is just the sort of big-screen entertainment in short supply for Academy voters. They still haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s glossy thriller “Tenet,” which never opened in New York and Los Angeles. When they eventually watch their Blu-ray screeners, the escapist time-twister isn’t exactly a zeitgeist movie mid-pandemic.
Gorgeously mounted period western “News of the World,” on the other hand, not only boasts sumptuous production values, but Paul Greengrass also turned it into a timely political drama. The London filmmaker likes to embed politics in his films. His 2002 breakout “Bloody Sunday,” about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, showcased his ability to ratchet tension (a skill he aced in three “Bourne” installments). He places audiences inside real-life traumas, from ocean kidnapping thriller “Captain Phillips,” his first outing with Tom Hanks, to true terrorist stories “22 July and “United 93,” the latter of which earned him his first directing Oscar nomination. With “News of the World,” he could land a second.
In fact, “News of the World” could score multiple additional nods, for Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Production and Costume Design, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, and Score. Tom Hanks carries the movie with humanity and without sentimentality; his performance is deeply moving. That may prove too subtle for Academy voters, who often overlook the two-time Oscar winner unless he does something showy like Fred Rogers (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”).
Universal’s Donna Langley, who has strong relationships with Greengrass and Hanks, took on “News of the World” after Disney shut down Fox 2000. Despite her studio’s taste for PVOD, Universal signaled confidence in their Oscar contender with commitment to a North American theatrical release. The movie is starting to screen for guilds and will arrive on the AMPAS and DGA portals over Christmas week. (Universal will also send screeners.) Unusual for the studio, it decided to lay off costs by selling international rights to Netflix. When the film will arrive on VOD, given widespread theater closures in New York and California and six other states, remains to be seen.
“We’ll never get back to the good old days,” said Greengrass on the phone, “but we have to start with one foot in front of the other, and what is the significance of movies in theaters at Christmas. It’s a statement of intent and faith in the theatrical experience and the healing power of stories, to entertain and to transport and to elevate and connect us.”
While the director agrees with Nolan on the potential for the return of moviegoing, he has a decidedly more pragmatic take. “Changes were already under way,” said Greengrass. “They have been enormously accelerated during the last nine months of the pandemic. Windows are collapsing. In the end, we are counting on moving into a new future, with movies available theatrically. Movies will be back by summer and people will go to theaters again from there, as vaccines roll out. I don’t think [the film industry] is finished at all, it will come back strongly. Streaming is also going to be part of it. It’s going to be one process, and consumers will choose. We can go and see a given movie in a theater, or choose to watch in our own homes. It’s driven by two things we always have to listen to, even if we don’t want to. We have no option but one, the choice of the audience, and two, the opportunities bestowed by technology.”
Greengrass is open to change: “It’s pointless to complain about it. I certainly don’t think you should set your face against it; you need to embrace it. Each filmmaker has to interpret the vast changing landscape and move forward toward destinations that are creatively rewarding. I’m optimistic. I don’t take the view that this is the death of cinema at all.”
He even believes there could be a benefit: If streaming forces studios to stop their relentless focus on gigantic tentpoles, a broader range of movies could go into production. “That middle range of film was under attack,” he said. “One thing that will happen is that pressure might be slightly different as more films become viable.”
Back in 2017, producer Gail Mutrux (“The Danish Girl”) optioned pre-publication Paulette Jiles’ novel “News of the World” with Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler, and teamed up with Playtone’s Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks, who was perfect to play Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who travels from town to town across the West, reading the news to people starving for information about their fractured country. Fox 2000 hired Oscar nominee Luke Davies (“Lion”) to write the first drafts about the traveling minstrel who tries to return orphan Johanna (“System Crasher” actress Helena Zengel) to her remaining family. She speaks two languages: German and Kiowa, and is mourning two sets of parents.
Greengrass was eager to jump on the movie. When he made “22 July” for Netflix, “I felt strongly that we were facing a huge move toward the right wing, certainly in Europe and in your country,” he said. “When it was done, I thought, ‘Fundamentally, I’m an optimistic person: I want to explore what the road toward hope might look like.’”
“News of the World” satisfied that demand, as well as giving him a new cinematic landscape. “I grew up on westerns when I was a kid,” he said, “but I never thought I’d get to make one. I wanted to work again with Tom. This is the mythic west, with the high landscapes and the incredible intimacy, but at the heart of it there’s Kidd.”
Set in 1870 in the shadow of the Civil War, “News of the World” shows an America “bitterly divided and mired in grief,” said Greengrass, “searching desperately for some way of coming together.” The person who is helping to mend the fabric of the nation is a lonely outsider, the newsreader.
Greengrass studied John Ford for his section of the Netflix World War II documentary, “Five Came Back,” and understood that “News of the World” is “The Searchers” in reverse. “It’s not the journey to find the girl and bring her home,” he said. “He’s going on that road of trying to get to a better place, but he doesn’t know it at the beginning. It’s about how we come together and how difficult that is. The odyssey has to be a journey toward redemption. I didn’t want it to be cute or sentimental. If a hard road is a hard road, you feel like you’ve come through when you find the destination. I wanted it to be an echo of the world today.”
He made some changes to connect Kidd’s journey to contemporary audiences. Kidd spins stories, of the meningitis epidemic and ferry boats, railroads, and new technologies; those came from Greengrass. The director also created a chilling centerpiece when buffalo hunter Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) brings the newsreader into his town to enlighten his exploited buffalo butchers, demanding that Kidd read a fictional account of his great achievements. When he lays out the truth instead, Kidd barely gets out alive.
“I wanted all the characters that they encounter to be characters drawn from the bitterly divided post-Civil War landscape,” Greengrass said. “The feeling would have been of the profoundly disconnected and disenfranchised, left out on their own.”
For a classic shootout between Kidd and a relentless gunslinger (Michael Angelo Covino of “The Climb”), Greengrass built in some surprising details. “I always want an action sequence to start with one thing and develop into another and push on to a third and fourth,” he said. “We have a wagon-horse chase and a gun fight as we push higher and higher. I always love action sequences that develop character. That whole sequence brings strangers Kidd and Johanna together and it becomes a rite of passage. They are starting to build a relationship.”
Working closely for the first time with Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“The Martian”), Greengrass slowed his tempo from the percussive style of the “Bourne” films. “I wanted to open the lens out, and shoot more classically,” he said. “Our instincts are in different places. I tend to be more handheld, tense and quicker; Dariusz is the master of the cinematic composition. From the first moment to the last, we both pushed and pulled each other to a different place. It looks like one of my films, but has a more classical landscape western quality, and still has intimacy at the heart of it.”
Greengrass has no trouble admitting that he made a message movie, to which Academy voters often respond. Clearly he identifies with his story-spinning protagonist. “If we are going to find the road out of this division,” he said, “it’s this lonely storyteller war veteran who moves from small community to small community binding them together with the gossamer thread of the storyteller. It’s not the great leaders who build the unity, it’s ordinary honest courageous kind men and women and children, who face up to their demons, their tragedies, and find new shapes for love and family. That’s the story, and that’s honestly what I believe.”