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Paul Greengrass, is a former journalist turned director whose films are often lean to the political side. This includes Bloody Sunday about the 1972 shootings in Derry, Northern Ireland and United 93, one of the most terrifying depictions of the 9/11 attacks. With such a distinctive style that leans into a particular type of dramatic pieces, no doubt Greengrass has attempted to break away from his own conventions as he was very close to directing the Watchmen movie. In his second Netflix outing, following 22 July, Greengrass goes John Ford with his western News of the World.
Based on the 2016 novel by Pauline Jiles – so not to be confused with the Queen album or the British tabloid newspaper – News of the World centers on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks). A former member of the Confederate Infantry, Kidd now makes a living traveling town to town reading newspapers for the populace for ten cents per person. When he encounters the young Joanna (Helena Zengel), who was taken in by Native Americans as an infant, he decides to travel across a post-Civil War America to return her to her last remaining family.
Known for his signature use of hand-held cameras, Greengrass does not showcase the shaky cam here. With its Old Western setting he embraces a more traditional style that we often associate with the Western genre. Dariusz Wolski’s stunning cinematography allows the camera to linger on the two main characters travelling as well as looking upon the wide vistas of the empty American valleys. Instead of the intense claustrophobia that has defined Greengrass’ filmography, this is a film where characters are breathing through the fresh air, even if they have to go through both dirt and blood to reach their destination.
Having a conventional narrative with the initially hesitant adult suddenly becoming the temporary guardian of an unruly child the plot ends up being predictable and sentimental and feels Spielbergian. This makes sense considering Steven Spielberg was inspired by the sentimentality of John Ford’s cinema. Greengrass co-adapted the source material alongside screenwriter Luke Davies and the two play it safe. News of the World works best when it deviates from the main narrative and focuses on the backdrop – a country still feeling the effects of the Civil War five years after its conclusion.
In News of the World’s most powerful sequence, Kidd and Joanna encounter a radical band of militia working to “cleanse” the county from “outsiders”. Instead of reading the approved news from the town’s vicious leader, Kidd reads from a different paper about a group of coal miners who rally against a cruel man whose refusal to abide by safety standards puts his miners in jeopardy. Leading to civil unrest, the scene is all about how the power of words can say more than needless violence of which America has already been through. Sure, there may be a shootout in a typical Western scenario, but whenever the film leans more towards pacifism is where the film truly shines.
If you’re going to cast someone who can read the news with such optimism and dominance in front of a live crowd, Tom Hanks is absolutely the right choice. Having previously collaborated together on Captain Phillips, Greengrass knows how to bring out the best from Hanks in his first Western role. He has the onstage professionalism to both entertain and inform townspeople, while he’s really a vulnerable drifter who is trying to escape from the memories that have haunted him from his time as a soldier.
As much as the central relationship with Joanna is meant to be the heart of the story – with Helena Zengel shows depth in a role that initially could have been the annoying kid – it is the silent moments where Hanks’ Kidd is alone, which is actually the emotional core.
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