Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in News from the world.
Photo: Bruce W. Talamon / Universal Studios
News from the world possibly in Texas after the Civil War, but it opens with a mention of a meningitis outbreak and ends with a mention of a cholera outbreak – a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) reminder from director Paul Greengrass that even when he makes films set to a fixed point in past, they are ultimately about how things are now. Based on Paulette Jiles’ excellent 2016 novel, News from the world follows Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former captain of the Confederate army, as he tries to transport Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old German girl raised by Kiowa, back to what is left of her family. In another era – back when the Western genre was a tool for all sorts of myths about white settlement and civilization – the film could have been about a lost, wild soul’s return to the comfort of an imagined society. News from the world has the elegiac mood and epic look of a classic Western, but its vision of civilization is much more complicated. No place in this movie feels like home, neither for Kidd nor Johanna. The stops on their journey seem more and more suffocating, empty, violent, hell. These two are nomads both practical and spiritual.
Kidds job is to go from town to town and read newspapers from all over the world to the public. He mixes bits of current events with evocative tales from distant lands and half performs his tales to increase audience interest. In his novel, Jiles makes it clear that this dead end job is all this former printer could get. The film version of Kidd invests him with a little more nobility and power: He understands the impact that his stories can have on his audience, and over the course of the film, he learns to apply that power more clearly. His stories speak of mysterious events, wonderful inventions, political events – and they all serve to open up the world and perhaps even place the listener somewhere in it. When Kidd reads and his audience responds, we feel like we are seeing the beginning of something strange, new and frightening: the beginning of a connected, self-conscious society.
Kidd and Johanna, like many of Greengrass’ characters, span different tribes in a time of enormous change. He is a defeated, reticent soldier from an army that no longer exists, with bad memories of a gruesome war, but he also accuses his stories with a sense of wonder and optimism that feels genuine. Hanks brings his usual kindness and underestimated authority to that part, but he also brings fatigue and melancholy: News from the world feels like the first real Old Man Tom Hanks movie, and it’s the most moving he’s been this year. (I would argue that this is his best work since his last collaboration with Greengrass, Captain Phillips.) Johanna has meanwhile been torn from two different families – a German, a Kiowa – just at the time when she was to develop her identity. The film’s most heartbreaking moment finds her on the edge of a river standing on a cliff in the pouring rain, crying and begging for a wandering Native American tribe that is half visible above the water to take her back to her Kiowa family.
Meanwhile, our two rootless protagonists stretch around the failed state of Texas, which Greengrass shoots with the wonderful immersion he brought in previous films to war-torn Northern Ireland and after the US invasion of Baghdad. It is a land that alternates between huge spaces and crowded cities that sit with division and threat, ruined places filled with ruined people. But this time, the director chooses to give up the unhinged, hand-held “shaking cam” aesthetic that began to become a punchline in some of his films. News from the world is hauntingly beautiful, with views you can get lost in, and a James Newton Howard score that melts and chokes and sweeps. It feels weird to see a western in 2020 that actually dares to be a western, especially from a director who has so long specialized in urgent, high-tech, ripped-from-headlines thrillers. But maybe it’s not that strange a combination. News from the world has an old-fashioned epic, but it also has a restless, modern soul.