Greengrass: News of the World (2020)

At first glance, a slow-moving western might seem like an atypical choice for Paul Greengrass, who normally focuses on stories about complex media and technology systems. In its own way, though, News of the World, his adaptation of the novel by Paulette Jiles, is a film about the present, even though it takes place in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. Tom Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Confederate soldier turned professional news reader, who travels from town to town reciting articles from major newspapers. Early in the film he comes across Johanna Leonberger, a young girl, played by Helena Zengel, whose parents were killed by members of the Kiowa nation. Johanna, who now goes by Cicada, has been living with the Kiowa so long that she barely speaks or understands English any more. Kidd volunteers to return her to her family, but it takes a while before the two of them can understand each other, so most of their early communications mainly revolve around tone of voice, which Kidd can modulate pretty fluently as a result of all his profession as news reader.

Westerns often present the West as a closed and hermetic system, but here we learn about the wider world from the very beginning. Greengrass evokes the huge movements, migrations and dislocations of people in the wake of the Civil War, while Kidd’s stories nearly always occur on a grand scale, from the meningitis epidemic ravaging Houston to the arrival of railroads in the parts of Texas he is moving through. The film grows more expansive as it proceeds, taking us through one broad landscape after another, as Kidd decides to head to Galveston, after dropping Johanna off at her relatives, and from there take a ship to “one of those far-off places” he’s heard so much about. In other words, the West is just one part of a rapidly globalising world that Greengrass imagines from the globalised world of the present – the world that his films typically enact and explore. The closest we come to this present is through Johanna’s Kiowa vocabulary. In one of the most memorable scenes, she teaches Kidd the vocabulary for “earth,” “cloud” and “sky,” before moving to a totalising phrase that has no direct English equivalent, but translates approximately to “collective, spirit, breath, circle.”

In other words, Greengrass revises the West by expanding it until it seems porous with every other part of the planet at the time. This was also the gesture of Westworld, which took Western tropes and reminagined them as interfaces onto other worlds, both contemporary and fantastical. While Greengrass opts for a more naturalistic approach here, both News of the World and Westworld are equally sceptical of the horizon as a western motif – and especially sceptical of its false promise to offer a point of access to other landscapes or outlooks. Instead, both series see the horizon as a boundary more than a threshold, a false concession to the outside world that ends up reiterating the hermetic closure of the Western. As a result, Greengrass spends much of the first and second act on the floodplains, refraining from stark horizons or dramatic geological features, or any striking widescreen perspectives.

More specifically, News of the World often plays as a revision of The Searchers, both in terms of the general plotline and the role that the horizon occupied in John Ford’s particular vision. While Kidd is also ostensibly saving a young girl from Indians, he can never quite discern whether her people are Indians or Europeans anymore. To some extent, this is also true of Ethan Edwards, but it doesn’t cause Kidd the same anxiety, just because the threshold between Europeans and Indians, and between all people in the West, feels more fluid from the outset here. In effect, the mythical home and hearth of The Searchers is displaced as the film moves towards it; absorbed into a quilting point for the porosity of the West as a whole.

For Greengrass, this fluidity of movement and experience is endemic to the period just after the Civil War, which is also the period when most classical Westerns take place. Yet whereas most classical Westerns use this period to congeal an ahistorical West, Greengrass focuses on the new channels of communication that opened up again after the war, along with the potential for misinformation and disinformation that came with them. As a news reader, Kidd leaves people more informed, but more vulnerable too, since a little bit of information can sometimes be twisted more dangerously than a total lack of information. Similarly, the more information people gain about Johanna, and Kidd’s project, the more vulnerable she becomes. The South here is a fragile informational ecology, unable to ignore missives from the North, but desperate to remain clinging to the past as well, meaning that Kidd has to learn to tell the truth in a variety of different ways to ensure that his audience are really informed.

In that sense, News of the World deconstructs the classical Western as much as it revises it, suggesting that classical Western perfected a certain kind of hermetic ahistoricity only because the period in question, just after the Civil War, was one of the most informationally volatile in American history. The film comes closest to that classically hermetic style when Kidd and Johanna stumble across a Southern clan who print their own newspaper, censor all other information and refuse to engage with any news that comes from outside their own county. This clan force Kidd to read aloud from their newspaper, under pain of death, but instead he draws deep on his powers of delivery, raising a story from the North, about coal miners, but relying on the working-class outlook of most of the clan’s members to generate sympathy. Sure enough, they prefer his story about miners to the clan’s fabricated stories about the South, and clamour for him to continue once he asks them to vote on his material.

At heart, then, News of the World is a tribute to the democratic power of the news, presenting journalism as an extension of the electoral process, insofar as journalists have to frame the truth in order to reach the widest number of constituents – even or especially those who appear to have no ideological investment in the truth as a guiding principle. While Kidd is reading the news, he’s also curating and crafting it, taking the temperature of each different audience, and then finding a way to accurately report news from the North without alienating the sensibilities of the South. We learn that Kidd started out as a journalist, but that the war disrupted his production and information flow, meaning he had to turn to reading the news in lieu of printing it. Yet this shift has arguably made him a better journalist, since it’s sharpened his ability to understand the news as a story – a story that needs to reflect the truth, but that also has to be told in a way that draws in as many different listeners as possible.

And News of the World is itself a perfect balance of good old-fashioned storytelling with a more revisionist sensibility. The first English word that Johanna speaks is “story,” while Kidd eschews payment when he finally finds her German relatives, instead asking them to buy her books, because “she likes stories.” Neither he nor the film can solve the complex intercultural quandaries that arise at this particular historical juncture, but he knows that storytelling, and the reparative dissemination of information, is a critical first step. Lest the film grow too sentimental in this vision of storytelling, its own stories remain open-ended, since both Kidd and Johanna are estranged by the homes and conclusions they arrive at. He discovers that his estranged wife has died, and she discovers that her German relatives don’t care about her, forcing them back into each other’s company to continue the story they’ve started together.

For Greengrass, this storytelling is the best way to counter the misinformational legacy of the Civil War – the pockets and traditions of historical misinformation that persist up to the present day. This is the real subject matter of the film – the collective and wilful memory loss of the South, both of itself and from a Northern perspective (“To move forward, you must first remember.”) Part of what makes News of the World so powerful is that it doesn’t merely critique Southern misinformation, but Northern defeatism in the face of Southern misinformation – the apathetic resignation that nothing can be done. Yet Greengrass has made a living doing exactly what Kidd does here, taking progressive messages and delivering them to audiences (in his case, action movie fans) who have traditionally been conservative. Just as Kidd finds a way to work progressive messages into the lexicon of the South, so Greengrass has found a way, time and again, to work left-wing content into an action lexicon.

In that sense, News of the World is Greengrass’ most autobiographical film – or at least the film that seems to reflect most on his legacy as a director. You sense him wondering what he might have done with his directorial skills, or his storytelling skills, before cinema, during the proto-cinematic West. The film therefore ends with two motifs of storytelling, the first of which revises and reframes the opening shot in The Searchers. This shot, one of the famous ever made, takes us through a door and out to the broad expanse of the West, emphasising the horizon in every facet – in the literal horizon line, in the massive volcanic plugs, which throw the horizon into further relief, and in the sheer widescreen sublimity of the shot itself. Yet Ford’s horizon, which initially seems like such a porous threshold, turns out be a boundary, as evinced in the closing shot, which reframes the same scene, but in a tragic mode. By contrast, Greengrass fuses these two shots in News of the World, when we return to the house where Johanna was taken, removing any sense of either sublimity or tragedy – or muting and fusing them so that this just ramifies as one step within a broader narrative world.

The second narrative trope comes in the epilogue, when, having rescued Johanna from her German relatives, Kidd enlists her as his sidekick for his travelling news show. Here, Kidd appropriates the Bible, the narrative that underpins all Westerns, but to communicate ideas, and sensibilities, that seem completely opposed to the traditional ways that biblical lore tend to be appropriated in this most conservative of Hollywood genres. We appear to cut into the epilogue of Kidd’s own news rendition as well, as he ends with comic story about a man from Baton Rouge who, like Christ, was buried for three days, before rising from the dead, scaring the living daylights out of a couple who were getting married in the same church where he was laid to rest. In this closing comic shift, Kidd takes the grand themes of life, death and matrimony, so sacred to the classical Western, and turns them on their head, but by adopting the Christian vocabulary that normally props up those themes in the Western to begin with.

This syncretic fusion of Christianity and folklore is the film’s final tribute to the transubstantiative power of storytelling. Watching it, I wondered whether News of the World will eventually come to be seen as an informal companion piece to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, since both films draw on Hanks’ soulful qualities, while focusing on characters who devise comparable but very different ways of getting progressive content across to a massive and diverse audience base. Hanks’ comic sparkle and wryness shines a little more brightly here, though, and this comic epilogue is the icing on the cake. Perhaps, in the end,  Greengrass’ antecedent is Howard Hawks, and, more specifically, the suden shift to bathos at the end of Red River. Here, as there, this surprising last-minute shift in tone is a wonderful affirmation that even the most profound pathos can shift unexpectedly into comedy – the most profound kind of comedy – if we embrace the power of stories at their most expansive.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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