The “white child raised by natives” narrative was a staple of the movie Western even long before its most famous version, John Ford’s The Searchers in 1956. In fact, according to Captured, by Scott Zesch, Hollywood studios had already made 60 movies about Indian captivities by 1920. Perhaps the only theme rivaling it for cinematic pervasiveness is the “gruff widower looking for redemption.”
Tom Hanks plays the latter searching, for the former, in News of the World, a new film from director Paul Greengrass opening in theaters December 25th and available as a VOD rental January 15th. It’s an attempt to give us all the iconic Americana of The Searchers with none of the problematic themes, a sort of Chicken Soup for the #Resistance Liberal Soul, offering the sheen of social commentary without ever really risking much.
Like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Tom Hanks’s Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a Civil War veteran from the Confederate side, now traversing an occupied Texas beset by banditry, where embittered, impoverished ex-soldiers often prey on the hardscrabble populace, who in turn resent the twitchy Union “blues” charged with enforcing the peace — all in the midst of an ongoing war between settlers and Native tribes. John Wayne’s character was actually based on Britt Johnson, a black guy, so News Of The World making Hanks another ex-Confederate feels like a deliberate point of comparison. Unlike Wayne’s character, this hero seems to have accepted his lot as one of the vanquished. He dutifully carries around his written loyalty oath to the Union and arms himself with only a “scattergun,” a shotgun filled with birdshot.
The other new twist on the genre here is Kidd’s job, which, as referenced in the title, involves him traveling from town to town getting paid a dime a head to read newspapers to the townspeople. Kidd flatters his audience, saying they’re probably not deliberately ignorant, just too busy working to stay abreast of world events (“Hey, we get it, you can read, you just don’t want to!”) before regaling them with news of mine collapses, railroad company mergers, and the latest proclamations from President Grant, who the crowd inevitably boos and hoots at like a pro wrestling heel. (Ulysses Hussein Obama!)
One day whilst clompety-clomping down the proverbial dusty trail, Captain Kidd comes upon an overturned wagon and a black freedman hanging from a tree — presumably lynched by restive ex-Rebs. Amidst the wreckage of the wagon he finds a scared little girl, blonde and blue-eyed with conspicuously fake freckles. (Incidentally, I would read an entire oral history about the decision to give this already-blonde-and-blue-eyed young girl painted-on Mexican sitcom freckles. Were they worried she wouldn’t read “white” enough?) Despite her complexion, the girl is clad in buckskins and understands no English. She speaks only subtitled Kiowa.
No one else is around, so it seems Kidd is stuck with her. His reluctant quest is to get her to someone who can take care of her, which will be no mean feat considering she’s already been kidnapped from her white family by Kiowa, torn from her adopted Kiowa family by soldiers, and shorn of her black guardian by some proto-Klansman. Orphan me once, shame on you…
Again, there isn’t much new to the age-old orphaned settler story, though I suppose News Of The World (adapted from the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles) deserves some credit for covering all the bases of cross-racial kidnapping. Hanks is watchable as always, playing Kidd as an amalgam of Rooster Cogburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, your classic American hero who doesn’t start a fight but is willing to finish one. He has compelling chemistry with the girl, played by 12-year-old Helena Zengel, the rare competent and tolerable child actor (probably on account of she’s German, and thus didn’t come through the Disney Channel influencer-building machine). “Johanna” lovably eats chili with her bare hands and tries to start songs during dinner, as she’s been raised.
From there, News Of The World plays out like an obstacle course, with a fleshed-out premise and an obvious ending, where most of the narrative energy expended is in contriving barriers to put between the finished premise and obvious ending. Hanks and Zengel weather them all gamely — bandit attacks, dust storms, learning to use a spoon — but Greengrass (director of United 93, Captain Phillips, and the last three Bourne movies) never quite makes us believe in the possibility of a different outcome. Thus, even his most thrilling contrivances still seem slightly tedious.
Since almost everything else in it is a tried-and-true trope, the obvious question becomes, why the news-reading angle? At one point, Kidd and the girl get Shanghai’d by an evil ascotted warlord, who tries to force Kidd to read his propaganda rag about what a great job creator he is to the presumably coerced multicultural workforce at the warlord’s buffalo poaching ring. Kidd instead regales them with tales of working-class solidarity and nearly starts a revolution. (“Jefferson Beauregard Bezos,” I believe the warlord’s name was).
The buffalo camp scene is News Of The World‘s most interesting interlude and its clearest hint at a theme. Unfortunately it’s also probably its least well-staged, and thematically, something of a one-off. Shame, I would’ve loved to watch Tom Hanks go from town to town inciting labor revolutions with his freckle-faced sidekick.
Instead it comes off more like a #resistance lib hall of horrors, where the white hero (a reformed Confederate who has seen the error of his ways) triumphs over racists, white nationalists, nature, income inequality, and environmental degradation. Which he accomplishes by reading legacy media to ignorant rural peoples with the assistance of offscreen brown people. Grrr, democracy dies in darkness!
Like third way liberalism itself, News Of The World attempts to please everyone without much of any unifying message. There’s even a human trafficking scene you could read as an appeal to the Q people. “Be decent” would’ve been a fine message, and perfect for the uncommonly decent Tom Hanks, but News Of The World is scattershot and slightly smug. America’s Dad literally reads the newspaper to ignorant townsfolk. They never quite shout “fake news” and he never exhorts them to learn to code but the implication is there.