News of the World (Universal, 2020)
Updated: Apr 19
Netflix is currently showing here in France, and perhaps where you live too, a Universal Western released on Christmas Day 2020, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks. It’s a post-Civil War story, set in Texas.
I think it’s rather good.
Mr Hanks gives a subtle, nuanced performance of considerable skill, playing a ‘newsreader’, a man who journeys from town to town reading newspapers for nickels and dimes, to people who can’t read or haven’t the wherewithal to procure or time to read papers. In either a deliberate or accidental reference to modern ‘infotainment’, a time (now) when news has to entertain as much as inform, Captain Kidd (despite the name he is very unpiratical) is as much a showman as a disseminator of information on current affairs.
On the road he comes across a hanged black man – a note attached to the corpse says that “Texas says no” to people of color – and by the roadside he finds a little blonde girl whom he names Johanna (Helena Zengel, only twelve but an amazingly assured actor). The child only speaks Kiowa, and it transpires that she was a captive of that people, abducted from her family, though one who had become completely acclimatized and absorbed into the culture.
This happened quite a lot. We are reminded, for example, of the story of Jimmy McKinn, which Elmore Leonard took as the starting point of his story Hombre, later filmed with Paul Newman. In May 1885 on a farm in the Mimbres Valley of south-west New Mexico, eleven-year-old Jimmy ‘Santiago’ McKinn was kidnapped and his brother killed by Geronimo and a band of Apaches. The boy’s father, who had been away in Las Cruces at the time, gave chase upon his return and was relentless in his efforts. But after finding his son’s coat with a bullet hole in the back, the poor man gave up and gradually descended into insanity.
In fact, however, the boy had been taken by Geronimo into Mexico where the band was pursued and eventually trapped by General Crook, and Santiago was among them. The party escaped but was later caught again, by General Nelson A Miles. A reporter, Lummis, wrote "When told that he was to be taken back to his father and mother, Santiago began boo-hooing with great vigor. He said in Apache—for the little rascal has already become quite fluent in that language—that he didn't want to go back—he wanted to always stay with the Indians. All sorts of rosy pictures of the delights of home were drawn, but he would have none of them, and acted like a young wild animal in a trap. When they lifted him into the wagon which was to take him to the [railroad] station, he renewed his wails, and was still at them as he disappeared from our view."
Later the reporter wrote, "Santiago McKinn, the 11-year old white boy, the Apaches' prisoner taken with Geronimo’s band, will be sent home tomorrow. It is learned that his parents were not killed, but reside at Hot Springs, at Hunter's, N.M., near the railroad from Deming to Silver City. During his half-year of captivity the lad had grown fully Indianized. He joins their sports, and will have nothing to do with the whites. He understands English and Spanish, but can hardly be induced to speak in either. He has learned the Apache language and talks it exclusively."
In reality, McKinn re-integrated and remained with the whites in Grant County, New Mexico where he later married, had children, and worked as a blacksmith. Later, he moved to Phoenix where he died in 1941. There were plenty of other cases of children abducted and integrating into the new societies they found themselves in. So News of the World has a smack of reality about it. Writer Paulette Jiles used real cases as the basis of her 2016 novel (made into a screenplay by Greengrass himself and Luke Davies).
The captain feels utterly unqualified to look after the child or return her to a distant uncle and aunt but all efforts to resettle her failing, he decides, from compassion, to do just that. The film now becomes something of a road movie, as the odd couple travels the dangerous roads on its way to an uncertain destination.
Mr Greengrass, an Englishman who started in hard-hitting documentaries, achieved some commercial success with The Bourne Supremacy, and directed Hanks in the title role of Captain Phillips, about the 2009 hijacking of an American ship by Somali pirates, and in fact he brings some of those action-movie skills to bear in this Western, especially when some lowlifes try to buy the girl from the captain for loathsome purposes.
The other very strong point of News of the World is the look of it, and the production design. It’s beautifully shot by DP Dariusz Wolski in lovely New Mexico locations, and the sets, by David Crank (art director on There Will Be Blood), and lighting (impossible to attribute praise despite the ridiculously long credits) give us an entirely credible late-1860s setting, with dark interiors lit by feeble oil lamps, for example. Captain Kidd strains to read his newsprint, hunched over it with a magnifying glass; you feel his eyesight is suffering. There was a stunningly good reconstruction of 1860s San Antonio. It’s all very well done. I also liked the music, by James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, etc) which is powerfully atmospheric.
I would say it’s quite an ‘old-fashioned’ Western in many ways, with a simple, linear plot, excellent staging and very good acting.
Traditional Westerns, by which I suppose I mean those from the high period of the 1940s and 50s, always portrayed Reconstruction as an unalloyed evil. Exploitative carpet-baggers come down South and oppress honest decent farmers. Often the hero mounts resistance. None of the actual benefits of Reconstruction were ever shown, and indeed some Westerns even went so far as to have ‘darkies’ cheering on Confederate soldiers as they resisted the Northern Bluebellies. This modern Western is more subtle than that, though the resistance of the (white) population to the disgraceful laws enforced by what they see as an occupying army is clearly represented. One particular racist local thug, Farley (Gabriel Ebert) is especially repellent, and he has a ‘fake news’ agenda that resonates today, insisting that the newsreader use his own highly partial paper.
There's a duel between shotgun and revolver. Who do you think wins?
There's a Fordian doorway shot, Greengrass having a little homage moment, I guess.
It was great to see in character parts Ray McKinnon (unforgettable as the preacher in Deadwood and also excellent in The Missing – another Western about a child abducted by Indians – and those televised Larry McMurty tales), Bill Camp (Jeremiah Wilkes in Hostiles) and Elizabeth Marvel (the older Mattie in True Grit).
The child, by now almost feral, is essentially a deeply tragic character, orphaned so many times it is impossible to say where she belongs, but the ending, even if verging on the dread adjective heart-warming (saints preserve us) is nevertheless fundamentally satisfactory, and you will leave this film generally pleased.
On rogerebert.com Brian Tallerico said, “Yes, it’s relatively predictable and arguably a little thin in terms of ambition, but it’s also refined and nuanced in ways that these films often aren’t. Everyone here is at the top of their craft from the character actors who populate the ensemble to the two leads at its center to everyone behind the camera, and you can feel that from first frame to last.” I would agree with that.