News of the World might be set in post-Civil War Texas, but it opens with mention of a meningitis outbreak and ends with mention of a cholera outbreak — a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) reminder from director Paul Greengrass that even when he makes movies set at a fixed point in the past they’re ultimately about the way things are now. Based on Paulette Jiles’s 2016’s excellent novel, News of the World follows Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former captain in the Confederate army, as he attempts to transport Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old German girl raised by the Kiowa, back to what remains of her family. In another era — back when the Western genre was a vessel for all sorts of myths about white settlement and civilization — the film might have been about the return of a lost, wild soul to the comforts of an imagined community. News of the World has the elegiac mood and epic look of a classic Western, but its vision of civilization is a lot more complicated. No place in this movie feels like home, for either Kidd or Johanna. The stops on their journey seem increasingly stifling, empty, violent, hellish. These two are nomads both practically and spiritually.
Kidd’s job is to go from town to town reading newspapers from around the world to the public. He mixes bits of current events with evocative tales from distant lands, half-performing his narratives to heighten the crowd’s interest. In her novel, Jiles makes it clear that this dead-end job is all that this former printer could get. The film version of Kidd invests him with a bit more nobility and power: He understands the effect that his stories can have on his audience, and over the course of the movie, he learns to wield that power more pointedly. His tales speak of mysterious occurrences, wondrous inventions, political happenings — and they all serve to open up the world and maybe even place the listener somewhere in it. As Kidd reads and his audiences respond, we feel like we’re watching the start of something strange, new, and fearsome: the beginnings of a connected, self-aware society.
Kidd and Johanna, like many of Greengrass’s characters, straddle different tribes during a time of enormous change. He’s a defeated, reluctant soldier from an army that no longer exists, with bad memories of a gruesome war, but he also charges his stories with a sense of wonder and optimism that feels genuine. Hanks brings his usual affability and understated authority to the part, but he also brings weariness and melancholy: News of the World feels like the first real Old Man Tom Hanks movie, and it’s the most moving he’s been in years. (I’d argue it’s his best work since his last collaboration with Greengrass, Captain Phillips.) Johanna, meanwhile, has been torn from two different families — one German, one Kiowa — right at the point when she’s supposed to be developing 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 migrating Native American tribe half-visible across the water to take her back to her Kiowa family.
Meanwhile, all around our two rootless protagonists stretches the failed state of Texas, which Greengrass shoots with the wide-eyed immersiveness he brought in previous films to war-torn Northern Ireland and post-U.S. invasion Baghdad. It’s a land alternating between immense spaces and crowded towns that seethe with division and menace, broken places filled with broken people. But this time, the director opts to forgo the unhinged, handheld “shaky-cam” aesthetic that started to become a punchline in some of his films. News of the World is hauntingly gorgeous, with vistas you can lose yourself in and a James Newton Howard score that lilts and quavers and sweeps. It feels odd to see a Western in 2020 that actually dares to be a Western, especially coming from a director who for so long specialized in urgent, high-tech, ripped-from-the-headlines thrillers. But maybe that’s not so odd a combination. News of the World has the trappings of an old-fashioned epic, but it also has a restless, modern soul.