It’s a while since they last worked together – 2013 – but the mere thought of a Tom Hanks/Paul Greengrass reunion is enough to get those expectations soaring. Captain Phillips was one of Hanks’ best ever performances, with Greengrass’s substantial documentary pedigree turning the container ship hi-jacking story into a masterly thriller reeking of reality.
In News Of The World, they return for something in a more traditional setting with a softer, reflective tone that goes with their maturing years. Hanks reprises his rank as Captain, but this time as Civil War veteran Jefferson Kidd, who scrapes a living travelling from town to town in the western states, reading excerpts from newspapers – national and from further afield – and bringing them up to date with the news their local publications didn’t carry. On the trail, he acquires a travelling companion, a young, blonde girl who speaks only Kiowa, having spent most of her formative years with the tribe. En route to being returned to her only remaining family and, with nobody else to accompany her, Kidd decides to take it upon himself. What he already knew would be an arduous journey turns out to be one that tests his resilience, physical and mental.
In an America still severed in two by the Civil War, Kidd is a man who wears his military past with dignity, one that commands respect and enables him to find a way through the lingering profound bitterness and anger. Not that he has a safe passage, but through his eyes it seems that his nation is still hell bent on destroying itself. Memories of his past never go away – some of them are on show in his first moments on screen – and, while it seems unlikely, both he and his passenger, Johanna (a superlative Helena Zengel) are both victims of the upheaval in their own way, both looking to reconcile with their past and find somewhere they can call home.
In many ways a traditional western – those panoramic landscapes yearn for the big screen originally planned before the film was scooped up by Netflix – its echoes of recent events in the USA are unavoidable, especially when Kidd finds himself forced into a reading for a buffalo hunting community. Remote and ruled with a rod of iron by Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), the settlement stands for everything the Captain finds repellent – racism, brutality, isolationism, dictatorship. It’s just one of the obstacles he faces on his trek to take Johanna home and to confront his own past, but it’s also the most extreme and the one that resonates most with the audience.
Zengel’s performance is the one that’s attracted attention – and a Golden Globe nomination – but, for anybody who saw her in System Crasher, it’s no surprise whatsoever. In a role with limited dialogue, she has to rely on other methods of communication, her face and eyes especially speaking volumes for the horrors she’s had to witness at such a tender age. It’s a tremendous performance, and all the more impressive in its maturity when you realise she was just 11 when the film was made. Hanks is on good form, in a role well within his capabilities, inevitably gaining our respect and sympathy but which never really takes him outside of his comfort zone. The same can be said of the audience. We know where we are with News Of The World: despite the trials of Kidd’s epic journey, it reassuringly confirms the values we hold dear, making sure they eventually triumph. And its reflective, contemplative tone makes it as comfortable as Johanna’s favourite blanket.
Drama, Western | Cert: 12A | Netflix | 10 February 2021 (UK) | Dir. Paul Greengrass | Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Thomas Francis Murphy, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel.