It says a lot about the demise of the genre that this is Tom Hanks’s first western. Until now, this quintessential all-American actor and the most American of genres haven’t passed within a dried-out gulch of each other – four outings as Sheriff Woody notwithstanding. If he’d been born four decades earlier Hanks would surely have vied with Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart to play upstanding lawmen and noble-minded settlers, facing off against cattle rustlers, outlaws and bandits between trips to a saloon where no one ever seems to pay for drinks.
Paul Greengrass’s stirring western sets the record straight in some style. Set in 1870, it has Hanks playing Captain Jefferson Kidd, a Civil War veteran who fought on the losing side and who now schleps around Texas, his trauma in tow. He travels from town to town, reading out newspaper articles to rooms full of rowdy locals. ‘I read the news to anyone with ten cents and the time to hear it’ he says.
It’s an occupation that News of the World (adapted from Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel) has a more than passing interest in. Tales of a strike in a Virginian mine spark unrest in a group of exploited workers. Stories of emancipation and approaching railroad lines shake the trees of cruel men who like to be the ones controlling the information. Kidd, who doesn’t carry a gun, is destined for further violence whether he likes it or not. News is powerful and Kidd is its medium.
Hanks is immaculate as this world-weary wanderer, imbuing him deep sorrow and humanity. He even rides like a genre veteran (disappointingly, the horse isn’t called Bullseye). But he shares at least half the spotlight with System Crasher breakout Helena Zengel. The 12-year-old German actress is startling again here as Johanna, a girl abducted and raised by the Kiowa tribe, and then left homeless again by further bloodshed. The reluctant Kidd is ordered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take her cross country to her surviving uncle and aunt. Cue a road trip through copper-coloured landscapes – and all of that threatened violence.
Stylistically, News of the World is a major departure from Greengrass’s signature jittery-cam approach, though its rhythm is just as boldly unpredictable. Some scenes stretch expansively to capture this odd couple’s growing bond; others whip by like a passing bullet. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s camera plunges into muddy cattle towns with jolting Steadicam shots, using natural light to shroud them in a perpetual dusk full of menace. You spend a stretch in one mud bath full of pissed-up cowboys before realising that it’s Dallas.
For western lovers – or anyone who’s spent 16 hours customising a horse on Red Dead Redemption – it’s a treat that comes bathed in composer James Newton Howard’s melancholy strings. There’s even a visual nod to The Searchers, a Greengrass text here, and its famous shot of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards framed by a doorway. Here, significantly, it’s two people framed by the lintel. Instead of a study of alienation and solitude, News of the World is about connection – about two traumatised people finding silent comfort in each other. About the promise of healing. It’s a long road, cautions this elegiac film, but it’s always easiest when travelled together.
Available on VOD in the US now. Launching on Netflix worldwide Feb 10.