REVIEW: News of the World [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 116 minutes
    Release Date: December 25th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Paul Greengrass
    Writer(s): Paul Greengrass & Luke Davies / Paulette Jiles (novel)

I guess we both have demons to face going down this road.

The year is 1870. The Civil War has ended and southern America is in turmoil—the seeds for our current resurgence of white supremacy being sown as ex-Confederate soldiers begin to think their country is being “stolen” by freed slaves, Native Americans, and Mexicans. Every city throughout Texas is thus wrapped within its own echo chamber as word travels slow and the time to read and/or hear it wears thin. It’s why San Antonio native Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) has taken up the task of riding the entirety of his home state to deliver the news. There are stories of disease, accounts of labor revolt, and even the odd human-interest tale of comical resurrection. For ten cents apiece you can escape to Dallas, Pennsylvania, and beyond.

As we soon discover during the course of writer/director Paul GreengrassNews of the World (based on Paulette Jiles‘ novel and an original screenplay adaptation by Luke Davies), Kidd didn’t arrive at this niche occupation by chance or for financial security. He too seeks its escape. The former print man has nothing to go home to now that the war took everything. All that remains are tough memories he’d rather forget—the ones we assume populate his nightmares and leave him circling relevant passages in his newspapers at night for the next town’s curated performance. Everywhere he turns, however, is a reminder of the horrors yet to dissipate. Black men lynched in the forest, tyrants murdering with impunity, and apathetic Union soldiers keep it floating upon the surface.

So what’s he to do after crossing paths with an orphan girl twice stolen? Young Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) was first taken and raised by the Kiowa and now she’s been “reclaimed” by the whites—each event a slaughter leaving her a stranger to both. Southern miscreants see her as a commodity. Northern custodians see her as a waste of time. Desperate to return to her tribe and fearful of any white man who dare try to help, her lack of English and risk to flee means leaving her behind is a death sentence. Kidd has no choice but to personally escort her to family she’s never met, stopping along the way to read the news, make a few bucks, and perhaps return to his own unfamiliar home.

The themes obviously resonate right now with the type of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and blatant editorializing that’s been bandied about as “facts” since the advent of for-profit cable news. Here is a southern man trying his best to educate the south about unity. Kidd is trying to tell free POCs that they don’t have to simply trade one form of slavery for another. He’s trying to bring a smile to the faces of those who’ve had little to smile about. That’s what the news does. Its power lies in bringing truth to the ears of those who’ve been lied to for far too long. His duty is to ensure men like Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) are kept in check from creating their own reality of self-serving lies.

It’s a pretty on-the-nose message that’s shared simply by letting Kidd stand in front of citizens who aren’t always going to like the words he reads. So while it does create conflict all on its own, it’s not the film’s true conflict. That lies with Johanna instead. She’s a sort of Rosetta stone for tolerance—a pale-faced, blonde girl who speaks Kiowa and thus alienates herself from two worlds at once. And if we’re being honest, she alienates herself from Kidd too. He reads her papers, uses her German name, and does all he can to stem the tide of her “Indian” nature. Until passing-by a town where his friend (Elizabeth Marvel) can translate, he proves just as bad as the rest … besides his rejection of abusive brutality.

His willingness to be educated is therefore what sets him apart from those who thirst for power. Kidd recognizes he has as much to learn from Johanna as she does from him to stem the tide of racism and begin to live a life of harmony in an America that literally just tried to kill itself. But it all starts from that willingness and his humanity since lesser men would have sold her to the first person that asked before continuing on his way. He conversely decides to risk his own life for hers even though he isn’t a man of means, youth, or political connections. Kidd sees this girl not only as a chance at redemption, but also a metaphor for a future built on empathetic inclusion.

The relationship born from Hanks and Zengel’s performances is thus key to the work’s success. They’re feeling each other out as far as trust goes and finding themselves caught in precarious situations with seemingly no way out unless they work together. There are inherent issues in this central dynamic considering we’re watching a man show compassion for an “other” who conveniently looks like him (not that the “white savior” message of having Johanna be an indigenous girl improves matters), but an underlying plot thread pushing Kidd onto a path that will allow him to reenter society and accept that he deserves to live and be happy despite everything that’s happened mitigates things. They become each other’s mirror to accept who they are and who they can still become.

Greengrass executes a few big set pieces to present their growing kinship with some wonderful visual tableaus bridging the gap between cultures to expose how the animosity between races isn’t about “good” versus “bad.” He ends a tense shootout with Johanna painting Kidd’s horse like a Native signboard of honor and heroism; a sand squall in a way that lets the girl save him; and ultimately never shows any violence that isn’t intentionally white on white. We know the other is happening and see the aftermath, but this civil struggle has always been about brother versus brother. It’s about men who want the power to treat human beings like property (to enslave, rape, or kill) and those willing to protect the voiceless from them. That fight remains today.

[1] (from left, center) Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) and Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) in “News of the World,” co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Photo Credit: Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2020 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] (from left) Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) in “News of the World,” co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Photo Credit: Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2020 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] (from left) Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) in “News of the World,” co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Photo Credit: Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2020 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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