Based on Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel, News of the World takes place a few years after the Civil War and follows the attempts of an old veteran, played by Hanks, to return a young white girl (Helena Zengel) to her real family. She is a reluctant charge. Having spent most of her life in Native American captivity, the girl can’t even speak English and would much rather stay put. Captain Kidd thinks otherwise and is determined to deliver her safely to her aunt and uncle.
Even without reading the book’s synopsis, you know where it’s going. Both characters will soften over the course of the journey, then there’ll be a falling out and a parting of ways, then they’ll come back together again at the end. We’ve seen it all before: the pair’s odd couple dynamic recalling the grumpy-old-man-feisty-young-girl model of True Grit (1969) and its Coen Brothers’ remake (2010); the idea of a white girl raised Native American nodding to John Ford’s classic western, The Searchers (1956).
But maybe familiarity is not such a bad thing right now. Maybe it’s what we all need: something familiar, something comforting. The film is due to be released in cinemas on New Year’s Day and if, as is looking increasingly likely, we can’t spend this coming holiday season with family and friends, then I can’t think of a better alternative than spending it in the company of Mr Hanks. At this point, Tom feels like a part of everyone’s family. He is the uncle we all wish we had, and however much filmmakers try to rough him up – in the trailer he is sporting an alarmingly grey beard – he cannot help but ooze avuncularity.
What is surprising about News of the World is that Paul Greengrass is at the helm. Greengrass, director of edgy, urban thrillers like the Bourne films (2004, 2007, 2016) and realist docudramas like United 93 (2006) and 22 July (2018), is almost the last person you would expect to make a western. So all credit to him. No doubt he will find some contemporary political relevance in this story of America’s colonial past.
[T]he Western has been undergoing a slow but steady renaissance, with recent indies like Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Slow West (2015), and Bone Tomahawk (2015)
He wouldn’t be the first to do so. For many years, the Western was dead and buried as a genre, perceived as endorsing conservative values and racist stereotypes that were not in line with Hollywood’s liberal image. But that all changed with Clint Eastwood’s brilliant and Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992), a revisionist take on the genre that explored what a life of gunslinging actually does to a man.
Since then, the Western has been undergoing a slow but steady renaissance, with recent indies like Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Slow West (2015), and Bone Tomahawk (2015) putting the myth of American freedom under serious scrutiny once again. Box office hits like Django Unchained (2012) and The Revenant (2015) have also shown a popular appetite for the genre, and now with News of the World coming out and Martin Scorsese planning a western of his own, the genre looks like it’s here to stay.
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