“And maybe just for tonight we can escape our troubles and hear the great changes that are happening out there.”
I’ve mentioned to you before, back when I recommended it, that I’m obsessed with John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1954). I have taught it now for 18 years, and with every new viewing I’m able to find new meanings and expansion. The character played by John Wayne, Ethan Edwards, is one of my favorites in film history. He’s a veteran of the Civil War and the Mexican Revolutionary War who has been wandering, in a state of feeling isolated and that he doesn’t belong. He returns to his brother’s home after eight years and his family is killed by Cherokees who abduct one of his nieces. What unfolds is an odyssey (the Greek myth allusion is intentional) in which Ethan searches obsessively for years for Debbie, who–by the time he finds her–is almost an adult and feels herself to be a Native American. It is in the journey and the episodic encounters that Ford lays out his themes of prejudice, loneliness, the frontier and civilization. It is a spellbinding work that exploits the intrinsic heft of the sky in the upper part of the frame weighing down on our protagonist, and it is one of the most influential films in history, impressing filmmakers Scorsese, Spielberg, Tarantino and most recently its legacy can be seen in Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” (2020).
Paul Greengrass is the Academy Award nominated director responsible for such immersive cinematic experiences as “Bloody Sunday”(2002), “United 93” (2006) and the kinetic “Bourne” thrillers. Here, he reunites with his leading man from “Captain Phillips” (2012), Tom Hanks, to deliver “News of the World” (2020), which plays as an homage to “The Searchers — or a worthy companion piece.It’s one of the few new films that made me wish I could have seen it on the big screen and gotten lost in its visual wideness. The one thing that I found most shocking is that while being a Western, it is a gentle and optimistic poem to the search for belonging, to the search for home and for the healing of old wounds. Although set in 1870, it’s a film that is about today.
Based on the runaway bestseller of the same name by Paulette Jiles, the film takes place in Texas, after the Civil War, and neighbors and families are still in stark and violent opposing sides. It is a nation figuring out how to forge ahead. We meet Captain Kidd, a literally and figuratively scarred Confederate veteran, who travels from town to town reading the national and international news to people who pay him a few coins for the entertainment. In the stories he chooses to tell he tries to soothe his audience as well as tell the truth of the world at large. “We’re all hurting. These are difficult times,” he tells a particularly boisterous crowd one evening. In a way, he is like those silent, man-with-no-name protagonists who were center stage in so many Westerns before, but instead of solving conflicts with the draw of his pistol, Kidd uses the news and the power of the word to unite the disparate communities he’s visiting. Kidd has another reason to be wandering alone: he’s widowed and the guilt of that loss and how it happened (we eventually find out) has made him a penitent soul.
On his way out of Wichita Falls, he comes across a lynched black man who was delivering a 10-year old child to her family 400 miles to the south. The girl’s German immigrant family was killed by the Kiowa and she–Johanna Leonberger–was raised by them. She now thinks of herself as a Native American and does not speak English. Separated by age and life experiences, Johanna and Captain Kidd share the commonality of having lost their loved ones. Yet when they first meet they don’t seem to want to be in each other’s company. Kidd embarks on the long journey to return her to whatever living relative she may have. It is in their arduous trek across Texas that we will witness their trajectory towards restoration.
Greengrass, who co-wrote the script, builds the narrative around obstacles that the two characters find along the way. In one phenomenal passage, they have to run away from ruthless human traffickers. “This child is not for sale,” Kidd protests. Their duel takes place on this steep rocky terrain, where the shoot-out is choreographed through crevices. In this pivotal scene which showcases Greengrass’ terrific editing and pacing, the action illustrates the coming together of Johannah and her protector, and how she becomes an aid to him and in control of her own fate. There’s also an eerie stop at the town of Durand where a self-crowned king keeps control of its occupants by feeding them lies he self-publishes in the local paper.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski unconventionally uses a handheld style that creates a visceral texture to the old traditional landscapes. He captures the intimacy of the story of these two intrepid travelers as well as the scope and grandeur of their surroundings. Tom Hanks delivers another likable and layered performance and Helena Zengel stands her ground with him.
It’s all great news.
Captain Kidd: “The war is over. We have to stop fighting sometime.”
Available to rent on Amazon Prime and Google Play
Screenplay by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies
Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel
Writer and Director Paul Greengrass on Bringing “The News of the World” to the Screen
“After ‘22 July’ I wanted to do something different,” says Paul Greengrass of his 2018 fact-based drama that detailed the 2011 Norway attacks in which 77 people were killed. “It was a film about a very dark subject and left me thinking, like any parent, ‘Where’s the hope in all of this? What’s the road to healing in this bitter and divided world?’ “And then, serendipity being what it is, they sent me the book of ‘News Of The World’ a few months later. Tom was already attached. And I thought, ‘This is perfect, it’s a western, an opportunity to do more of a classically shaped film.’ But, fundamentally, it is about how to heal. It’s set in 1870, but it might as well be today. So I did a new screenplay and that was it.” Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles and co-scripted with Luke Davis (‘Lion’), ‘News Of The World’ takes place in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and centres on Tom Hanks’ Captain Kidd. He is a former Confederate soldier who makes a meagre living travelling across Texas from small town to small town, reading the news “to the people who are grieving in the shadow of the war, terrified by pestilence and pandemic, and struggling to get through life”, explains Greengrass. “This is a world before television, before radio, before social media. This is their entertainment, their contact with the world. And his journey is a little thread that connects community to community and starts the process of rebuilding through the healing act of storytelling.”
“What I loved about this story was these two insignificant characters who are both lost, who meet each other in this bitterly divided, reconstruction landscape and go on a journey, and that journey is the road to finding out who they are and where they belong,” says Greengrass. “And, in the end, the film shows you it’s not going to be about leaders and politicians, it’s about ordinary people understanding what they’ve gone through. I thought that was very interesting, very contemporary and accessible.” Indeed, despite being set more than 150 years ago, ‘News Of The World’ could be about the US today, with a divided country, racism and the threat of a pandemic among its hot-button topics, all of which were of great appeal to the politically motivated filmmaker. “That’s what I tried to bring out when I did my version [of the script], and they just became more pronounced the longer we went on,” says Greengrass, talking to Screen International in mid-January. “Once we finished shooting and got to post and Covid happened, they became even more resonant. And the contemporariness of it beat ever more strongly, right up to the events of 10 days ago.” (screendaily.com)
Editor William Goldenberg on “News of the World”
“Editing ‘News of the World’ brought many challenges, some big, some small and one that no one could have imagined. I was very happy to have previously worked with the film’s director, Paul Greengrass, on 22 July, a gripping and powerful film about a terror attack. So I jumped at the chance to work with Paul again. But this time would be different: ‘News of the World’ is a Western, a genre we had never done before, and one of the stars was 10 years old. Additionally, it wouldn’t use Paul’s usual style of handheld first-person footage, familiar to fans of ‘Captain Phillips’ and the Jason Bourne films. We would need to adapt — and we embraced the challenge. ‘News of the World’ is a road film in which Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Jefferson Kidd, must escort an orphan girl (Helena Zengel) across Texas to return her to her last living relatives. Besides the challenges that can be inherent to working with a child actor, we had a tight schedule, unpredictable weather and way more visual effects than you would expect. The key to making it all work was collaboration — on Paul’s part, and on the part of his team. Paul involved me in ‘News of the World’ from the beginning of screenwriting all the way to the end of post-production. It is rare for me to be so involved, and I loved the opportunity to give feedback when the script was still coming together — when the time came to edit, I was much more entrenched in the intention of each scene. Paul’s openness with me about his process continued when I arrived on-location in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we would speak about what he had shot that day and was going to shoot the next. I learned from his ability to process opinions from everybody on set, and decide what was right for the film. This meant he gave me free rein to try anything I felt strongly about, and put it right in the cut. Paul likes to keep his distance during the editing process, so that he can be fresher for internal screenings, and he trusted me to make decisions so he could focus on the film as a whole.” (moviemaker.com)
Composer James Newton Howard On the Score for “News of the World”
“I would think [for] any film composer—certainly me, my generation—the most exciting thing is to get a gigantic canvas, like a big Western that’s almost like a David Lean movie, or just a big story with great images and phenomenal performances. This movie had all of that stuff in it. Even though the score is rather quiet through most of it, it does have moments where it flexes its muscle a little bit toward the end. It was just a sheer pleasure to work on, and that would probably be my number one genre of what I love to do most, is just a big, outdoor adventure…The real deal in the beginning was, how do we express musically who this character is, who Jefferson Kidd is? He’s a wounded individual; he’s definitely an outsider. Even though he goes from town to town, reading the news, you really get the feeling that he’s a loner. He takes off by himself after each job, and carries with him some unknown wound or grief.
So, it was very important, even in the very first scene, which I wrote more than 20 times, just to get it to the point where Paul felt we were portraying somebody as being solitary, as opposed to tragic. Because there’s a big difference. It’s an important nuance because I think people would respond differently to something if you just made it seem overtly sad. Just overall, what we talked about at the beginning [was], he portrayed this country that was really in tatters. Obviously, post-Civil War, pretty much everything was broken. The country was broken, people didn’t have any money, and he said, “How do we express that musically? How do we do that with a big orchestra? What sounds broken?” So, we came upon an idea of having the centerpiece of the orchestra being a seven- or eight-piece group of musicians. We called it our “broken consort,” and we gave them ancient instruments to play. Viola da gambas and cello d’amores, and gut-string fiddles, they just have a little bit of a more roughly hewn edge to them, and a lot of the score is just that group, along with different sounds that I created. Then, as the score gets bigger, as the story unfolds, you start to surround it more with a big, traditional orchestra that we recorded remotely in London. But we really tried to keep that feeling of brokenness all the way through the movie. (deadline.com)
About Author Paulette Jiles
Paulette Jiles is a poet and memoirist. She is the author of ‘Cousins,’ a memoir, and the bestselling novels ‘Enemy Women’ and ‘Stormy Weather.’ She lives in San Antonio, Texas. “I sing in a choir, which I enjoy very much. I am an alto, and so have to carry harmony. Since I am very deficient in reading music, I depend on the person next to me and the basses behind me to find my note. I have ‘Piano For Dummies’ and a keyboard, but I am not making much headway. Luckily, I have a good ear and am neither sharp nor flat excessively. I envy the sopranos. Especially the lilting voices on the Alleluias—and they get to do the melody. But somebody has to chop wood and carry water. I am working on a sequel to ‘Lighthouse Island’ — after all, if you spend time and effort to construct an alternative world, why abandon it after one work? The next story about the Western Cessions, aka ‘Drought World,’ will be about different people, same arid continent covered in ‘city’ and blasted by dust. Until the rains come. I don’t know how many dystopian novels I’ve read in the course of writing ‘Lighthouse Island.’ And thus I came upon the master, Jack Vance. Next to Bradbury, of course. In the meantime I have necessary work to do here on the ranchito, including feeding and care of two horses and a donkey, fence work, hauling feed and hay, and cleaning stock tanks. I write in the mornings; but when the hot weather comes, I will have to shift that to the afternoons, as the cool early morning hours will be the only time to get outside work done. I ride with friends once or twice a week. I don’t travel all that much, but when I do, it is usually to Missouri to see family, to San Antonio, Texas, to go to the opera or to have lunch with friends, or to Llano, Texas, to visit with writers Laurie Jameson and WC Jameson.” (paulettejiles.com)
About Writer and Director Paul Greengrass
Born in a suburb of London and raised mostly by his mother while his father was away as a Merchant Marine, Greengrass was “a kid who found it difficult to fit in, who was a bit averse to institutions and a bit averse to polite society” — until, that is, he “lost myself” in the arts. He got his act together enough to attend and graduate from Cambridge, after which he landed a job working at Granada Television’s “World in Action,” an investigative news show “deeply rooted in the British documentary movement” for which he spent nine years — 1978 through 1987 — traveling the world writing, shooting and editing segments. “That was really my education,” he says. “I had always had a secret dream to make movies,” he says, but it seemed an impossible aspiration until Channel Four started Film Four and financing became available. Greengrass left “World in Action” and, beginning in 1989, spent a decade making films for television. “I would write these films, but they would never quite turn out as I saw them in my mind’s eye,” he says — until, that is, he reached the conclusion that he should shoot his narrative projects the way he had shot his documentary projects, with an “unknowing camera.” Thus, with 1999’s The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, he arrived at his trademark visual style of shaky handheld cameras and super-fast editing. 2002’s “Bloody Sunday,” his second “docudrama” (the label used by many to describe his films of that era), was even more fully-realized, won prizes at the Sundance and Berlin film fests and got noticed internationally. “After Bloody Sunday,” Greengrass says, “I felt that I had got to the end of a sort of ‘chapter’ of work, and I needed to do something different, but I didn’t know what.” It just so happened that, that same year, Universal had released Doug Liman The Bourne Identity, which proved an unexpected blockbuster, and the studio wanted a sequel, albeit with a different filmmaker.
Greengrass remembers thinking around that time, “I want to do a proper, big-ass Hollywood movie and see if I can.” Then, he continues, “A few months later, I get a call saying, ‘Would you be interested in doing the follow-up to The Bourne Identity?'” He flew to LA to meet with producer Frank Marshall, and came away with the job of making “The Bourne Supremacy,” a $75 million project starring an A-lister and featuring massive stunts and explosions. While it was a considerably bigger budget than he had ever worked with before — Bloody Sunday cost just $4.5 million — he and Marshall decided to shoot every scene twice: once the conventional Hollywood way, and once the Greengrass way. The Greengrass way ended up being used, and “The Bourne Supremacy” was a critically-acclaimed hit. So, too, was the sequel for which Greengrass was brought back three years later, “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Coming off of “The Bourne Supremacy,” when he could have done anything, and for years thereafter since he wasn’t making a Bourne film (he returned for a third in 2016), Greengrass opted to make films about relatively recent terror-related events: “United 93” less than five years after 9/11 (for which Greengrass received a best director Oscar nom); “Green Zone” while the war in Iraq was still raging; “Captain Phillips” four years after Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk; and “22 July” seven years after the worst mass-casualty attack in Norway’s history. “The roots of them go back, I suppose, to my twenties, when I was in the real world and your job was to find a story and to watch the world in action and find a piece of it that you could tell a story out of,” Greengrass says. He emphasizes that “22 July” was intended as a warning, of sorts, about the sorts of events that would soon spread far beyond the Norwegian borders. “Our societies are facing a profound challenge from right-wing extremism. You can see it in your country right now, and certainly in my country and all across Europe and elsewhere.” (hollywoodreporter.com) Greengrass’ most recent film is “News of the World.”