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News of the World

Peter Malone MSC  |  12 February 2021

NEWS OF THE WORLD, US, 2020. Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Angelo Covino, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Camp, Fred Hechinger. Directed by Paul Greengrass. 117 minutes. Rated M (Violence)

News of the World sounds a contemporary title, so it is something of a surprise to find that the setting for this drama is 1870 Texas. Confederacy territory, there are bitter memories related to the Civil War, the issues of slavery, the consequences of defeat, reparations and the fact that General Ulysses S Grant is president of the United States.

This is a Western and there are many familiar tropes. But, for all that, it is a different West. First, it is seen from the perspective of war veteran Captain Kyle Kidd (Hanks). Kidd who had been a printer before the war, had lost his wife to cholera, and was now travelling the small towns of Texas, collecting newspapers, and reading news stories to gatherings of anyone willing to pay 10 cents to listen. Kidd chooses the stories – ranging from local stories of heroics to natural disasters, but also stories of Federation, which go down badly with the Texans bitter about the consequences of the war.

In Captain Kidd, Hanks shows that he is the embodiment of American decency, a confident righteousness, a humanity that can be challenged.

But, what makes the difference to this story is his encountering a man hanged by racists, the carriage overturned, a little girl cowering. While the Captain wants to entrust her to the military, they refuse and order him to go to the authorities for her to be taken back to an uncle and aunt. The documents indicate that her family had been killed by the Kiowa Indians and she had been taken and had lived with them, learning their language, absorbing their culture, but they too had been massacred.

Which means that the film is something of a road film on the American West trails. The Captain and the little girl, Johanna (Zengel), though she indicates her name from the Kiowa is Cicada, experience a number of Western adventures which keeps the film interesting and at times, frightening and exciting. They go to a town where the owner of the boarding house is able to speak the Kiowa language and tell the Captain something of the girl’s story. There are former soldiers who want to buy the girl and pursue them into the mountains, a subsequent shootout. Their carriage crashes and the horses need to be put down. They have to trek through vast plains.

There is an enormous tornado. There is a strange self-contained community of workers, slaves under the domination of a drunken exploiter. There is an encounter with homeless Indians on the move.

Which means then that the film is episodic but continually interesting as the two begin to bond, despite the limited language, despite the girl’s fears.

The strength of the film is very much in the performance of Zengel’s Johanna. The young  actress was acclaimed at the Berlin Film Festival of 2019 for her performance as a wilful young girl in System Crasher. Here she is able to hold her own with Tom Hanks – an indication of a successful future career.

The film has many moving moments – but, a literally happy ending as the captain reads the news but then tells his eager audience an amusing shaggy dog story. Which amuses them – but also amuses us, bringing to a close the couple and their wanderings and our sharing their adventures with them.

Released 28 December
Peter Malone MSC is an associate Jesuit Media


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