A filmmaker has the ability to redefine a genre, but the reverse is true as well. If you’re heading into “News of the World” with curiosity about what Paul Greengrass has done with the Western, you may discover that the real story here is what the Western has done to Paul Greengrass.
The smash-cut, hyperkinetic editing style that Greengrass first showed mainstream audiences in “Bloody Sunday” and carried into Hollywood studio productions like the “Bourne” franchise is only occasionally on display, with a shoot-out here and a runaway wagon there. In his first film set prior to the 20th century, Greengrass seems to be looking to John Ford and other filmmakers who have used the American West as a vast canvas that all but swallows up its characters.
John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are dead, of course, but Greengrass has his “Captain Phillips” star Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a man of few words when he’s not plying his chosen trade, traveling from town to town in 1870, reading newspapers to rapt crowds of isolated townsfolk who have paid a dime each for the experience. Like the radio and television news-readers who would follow in the decades to come, Captain Kidd knows how to engage an audience: Lead with a disaster, wrap up with a human interest story, provide a soothing presence when listeners are agitated by current events, and stoke outrage over injustice.
But “News of the World” borrows less from Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (in which a newspaperman famously advises, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) than from “The Searchers,” about a Civil War veteran who finds redemption by rescuing the daughter of settlers from her indigenous kidnappers. Captain Kidd doesn’t volunteer for this mission; he stumbles upon it, but he becomes nonetheless determined to see it through.
While on the road in Texas, he encounters a lynched Black soldier and a terrified young girl in buckskins who speaks no English. The girl is Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel, “System Crasher”), although that name, and the fact that she was born to German immigrants, means nothing to her. She was raised by the Kiowa — when the Army drove them off their land, the murdered soldier was tasked with escorting her back to “civilization” — although she wants nothing more than to be reunited with the only family she remembers.
The Army, however, wants her delivered to her aunt and uncle, her only surviving relatives, and when Kidd can’t find anyone in the military to take up the journey, he does so himself. In the process, he unlocks an emotional side that he’s long-buried, ever since leaving his wife behind in San Antonio as he went off to fight in the war.
The trope of the older, closed-off man reawakening to the world when tasked with caring for a child is one that’s been knocking around movies at least as long as the Western has, and it shows no signs of going away. (This month also sees George Clooney traveling a similar path in “The Midnight Sky.”) It’s almost always men who experience this reckoning; women are assumed to be innately nurturing — it’s only fodder for drama when they’re not — and it’s taken for granted that women are always willing to do so. But if a man changes one diaper, literally or metaphorically, we’re all meant to take notice.
If “News of the World” avoids the stickier sentimentality of this plot device, it’s because there’s absolutely nothing cute or cloying about Zengel’s Johanna. (She would prefer to be called “Cicada,” incidentally, although Kidd never does, even after they bond.) This child resists indoctrination, whether it’s eating with a spoon or wearing a dress, and while she and Kidd grow close on their travels, it’s only because he starts learning to speak Kiowa to her and not because she has any interest or desire to speak English.
Zengel’s intensity is matched by Hanks’ quiet gravitas; he’s developed the kind of screen presence that allows him to dial everything way down but still be the focus of every moment. Since the two leads are constantly on the road, their encounters with others are fleeting, which means that character actors like Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, Fred Hechinger (“Eighth Grade”), and Bill Camp are called upon to make an indelible impression with a minimum of screen time, which they absolutely do.
Director of photography Dariusz Wolski (“All the Money in the World”) definitely got the John Ford memo as well; even when characters are shot in close-up, they’re always set against the vast expanse of land in the wide-open West. (Even when the New Mexico locations serve up canyons that are supposed to exist just outside of Dallas.) As editor, William Goldenberg (“Detroit”) sets a pace that’s new and different for Greengrass, but he also lives up to the director’s previous work in those moments when the action gets intense.
The news-reading and child-rescuing threads never quite come together in Greengrass and Luke Davies’ screenplay, adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles, but “News of the World” nestles comfortably not only in the canon of the Western but also among the films by European artists who make a movie in the United States and find themselves overwhelmed by all that space. To his credit, Greengrass finds an emotionally engaging way to fill it.