News of the World (Review)

It is almost impossible to write about News of the World without using the word ‘capable’. It really is the perfect word to summarise not only the filmmaking but a core philosophy that the film expresses. What this means is (on a craft level), as with most films from director Paul Greengrass, you are in safe hands. This is a well put together Western that retains a classic sensibility while including a touch of contemporary flair. It is also a deeply safe film, one that skirts around the edges of complex issues – offering simple subtextual solutions, or just leaving difficult questions evoked and unanswered.

The film follows Tom Hanks’ Captain Kidd (a capable performance) as he ends up rescuing a young girl, Helena Zengel’s Johanna (a fantastic turn that outdoes the functional script), during his job of going town to town reading the news. This leads us to our core premise: Captain Kidd must transport Johanna to a designated point (seemingly her family), and avoid unsavoury types out for a bounty. Realistically, this is just an excuse for character work, themes and a couple of well constructed action scenes. The film is also a vehicle for a kind of well meaning, but ultimately completely limp, liberalism that has become – or always was – a feature of Greengrass films. It is a film that feels politically behind the times, offering moderate solutions to serious issues – and harkening back to the good old days of civility and capability (an eye-roll inducing ode to a liberal myth).

At the heart of this is the choice of the Western genre. Straight away we are greeted by traditionalism and old-fashioned values. There is a type of on screen etiquette we expect, that has been baked into us by cinema, in these kind of films. Greengrass and his co-screenwriter Luke Davies (adapting what is apparently a far more interesting novel by Paulette Jiles) use the codes and expectations of the Western to present a central dichotomy: old-fashioned man of moderation and values versus changing times of increasing instability, intolerance and lawlessness. Greengrass, no stranger to political filmmaking, obviously intends this all allegorically. It is easy to draw clear parallels to Greengrass’ understanding of the modern world – the title here (borrowed from the novel) also evoking a link to the contemporary. Greengrass’ cinematic language also pushes this point. He – and director of photography Dariusz Wolski – are able to frame beautiful, and traditional feeling compositions full of warm light. Yet, the camera can also feel strikingly modern, as it bobs and weaves, pushing in and pulling out fluidly in the obtrusive style that Greengrass has made his own. This movement juxtaposes the backdrop of traditionalism, as does the occasional (and quite jarring) use of lens flare – reminding the viewer of the camera and bringing in, through the look of the flare itself, an aesthetic of modernity.

This juxtaposed presentation is a reflection of the film’s central conflicts. This is an end of the West story, a time where things are changing and restlessness is rising up. Hard times and the shadow of war overhang the narrative – there is a sense of pervasive melancholy and grieving that reflects a changed place. It is easy to draw a parallel from this to the post-911 Western world that so fascinates Greengrass, or at least the world he presents in his films. But this film does evoke more modern fears: the language around immigration and racism is a poorly drawn facsimile for ripped from the headlines material – news of the world, so to speak. As are the examples of mob-justice and lawlessness; Greengrass is clearly evoking growing extremism and instability and how it cuts against a climate of acceptance and tolerance.

This is an interesting framework but his conclusions are flawed. His portrait of the West is more filmic than it is realist (this is no Meek’s Cutoff), and thusly feels artificial. It panders, or at least conforms, myths of a more civilised time – of the good old days. At the heart of all of this is Captain Kidd, the film’s central political statement. He is a newsman who has known war and suffering – and is therefore a sympathetic soul. The film’s viewpoint and ideas are clearly aligned with him, and the implications of this are fascinating. His job is to go from town to town and to read the news people need to hear. He wants to bring joy and information, to focus on things that are important for people – but also that show kindness, compassion and values that should be spread. This does position him as a saviour figure: a level-headed white man who has the answers and who society could do to emulate (according to the film). He is tolerant, he is capable and he is the film’s idea of the ideal. What this really implies, though, is a regressive rather than a progressive attitude. The film does not deal with the causes of growing instability, it just presents instability as a problem, and Kidd feels like a symbolic neo-liberal figure – specifically centrist – that thinks they are the solution without understanding their complicity in the way the world is going.

We see a society in the film that is in need of radical change. The attitudes and lawlessness that are bubbling up are abhorrent and alarming (though touched on lightly, another indication of the films moderate political stance). Yet the film presents the solution as a good man preaching a message that boils down to ‘can’t we all just get a long’. Ultimately, News of the World goes the whole way and presents him, and his ideology, as a solution – as the thing that causes the film’s eventual equilibrium. This deification of the traditionally capable – again, capability is the core ideology – is just a bit tiresome. It is very well meaning but it does not hold up to scrutiny. The ideas and answers this film proposes feel politically outdated; what should be a swan song for a moribund form of politics is instead, as previously mentioned, an ode. This goes back to the choice of the Western genre: the beauty of the film is used for a celebration of the past, it wants to preserve the old ways and show them in a warm and positive light. The film presents a world in which the old-white men are being left behind and then asks us to listen to them, to see them as our moral guides.

However, the film is ultimately likeable, in spite of its politics. It deals in myths and the mythic is at least compelling, the issue is that the film believes these myths. So, while the arcs are disappointing, the film still engages the viewer. A lot of this is down to the stellar production design, with David Crank taking the lead, and a great score from James Newton Howard. The music matches the ideas of the film as it feels traditional but with a contemporary bite, though it works better in moments of tension than in moments of drama. Though, this is true of the film as a whole. Fundamentally, as a political and emotional work the film is flawed. The latter is defined by the former as our emotional investment relies on upholding a kind of outmoded figure, and an outdated sensibility.

When focusing on tension, the film really works; however, it is sadly not in this mode enough . This is a reminder that, though Greengrass is a originally a documentarian and presents himself as a political filmmaker, he is better as an action film director. The Bourne films are the best evidence of this, but so is News of the World. There is a central scene in the film that is incredibly tense and beautifully put together. It is a shoot out crafted with precise visual language and a good amount of creativity. It has clear stakes, exciting editing and a good deal of impact. Greengrass is just good at this stuff, and when the film edges into tense or exciting territory, it shows a director at the top of his game. It is just a zone the film could be in more.

It is easy to malign and criticise News of the World. It is defined by old-fashioned values to the extent it feels old-fashioned itself, inescapably so. But there’s also a contemporary streak here that is very well orchestrated. The film has a bite, as a thriller, and on this level it does compel. However, even when politically disappointing, it is still an engaging watch. Hanks is perfectly fine, limited by the type of character he has to play which is – fundamentally – a touch boring. The one to watch here, though, is Helena Zengel, who gives a really physical performance that is also marked by subtlety and precision. She is given purposefully little to work with (an idea that is core to the narrative and, again, reflects its underwhelming stance) but is the beating heart of the film. Assets like this make News of the World easy to recommend: it is light, capably made and has some standout sequences. Just don’t think about it too much.

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