When award-winning director Paul Greengrass first read Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel News of the World, he was struck by the similarities between post-Civil War America and today’s climate of fear, division and unrest.
The story behind the new Tom Hanks film, now available on streaming services, follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran with a mysterious past.
Full of regret and seeking healing, Kidd goes from one small Texas town to another, reading aloud from newspapers to townspeople who gather, paying 10 cents each to hear these stories. During his travels, Kidd crosses paths with a 10-year-old girl taken by the Kiowa Native American tribe. Since her family was murdered by her captors, the child speaks no English.
Kidd agrees to escort the child, who he names Johanna, across the harsh and unforgiving plains of Texas to her aunt and uncle. But the journey proves to be challenging, both physically and emotionally.
“It’s this story about a lonely newsreader in Texas in 1870, in the shadow of the Civil War, at a time of bitter division, America uncertain of where she was [and] who she wanted to be,” Greengrass, who is behind a slew of hit films including the “Bourne” series, recalled in an interview with The Christian Post.
“He’s trying, in his way to heal by the healing power of storytelling. The storyteller connects with the audience when he or she reads a story, and that's what he's doing.”
“It just felt to me uncannily resonant with today,” the director continued. “Really what it was, was a journey toward belonging, a journey toward healing, and I love that about it.”
Seeking to bring hope to a deeply divided world, the 65-year-old British director decided to bring the story to the big screen in a Western drama starring Hanks — who he previously directed in 2013’s “Captain Phillips” — and 12-year-old actress Helena Zengel.
With sweeping scenes of the Texas countryside, dusty roads and horse-drawn wagons, "News of the World" is an entertaining, action-packed Western drama. But it also touches on deeper themes — loss, racial prejudice, xenophobia, “fake news” and human trafficking.
With a focus on Kidd and Johanna's relationship, the film addresses the importance of unity, relationships and crossing cultural boundaries to understand one another.
Another major theme of the film is sacrifice. Kidd — who Greengrass described as an “ordinary man called to do extraordinary things” — repeatedly puts himself in harm's way and risks his life and livelihood to ensure Johanna’s safety and well-being.
“That's something I think we all secretly wonder: How would it be if we were called upon in some great crisis?” Greengrass said. “In many ways, I think for all of us living through the pandemic, it's making us think about that.”
“We want to draw our family close to us in time of crisis as best we can to see if we can get through this tremendous period of difficulty, both in terms of the pandemic, but also in terms of bitter division," he added. "It’s a natural thing to draw your family close and hope for better days to come.”
Greengrass, a father of five, told CP that as he and his children grow older, he finds himself gravitating toward family-friendly content as a director.
“I think if you make movies, you have to make them as a family,” Greengrass explained. “Otherwise, the movies get between you and your family which is not a good place.”
“News of the World” in particular, the director said, is a film intended to entertain and uplift families and bring hope when audiences need it most.
“The last two films I've made have family stories at the heart of them, because ... it gets more poignant because you feel the passage of time more keenly,” he said. “You ask yourself, ‘Is it going to be OK for [my children] because they're going out into the world.”
“I found myself dwelling a lot on — is it going to be OK for [my children] in the world at a time when the world is bitterly divided and seemingly, for them, lacking the hope that I had when I was their age?” Greengrass continued.
“It's difficult for them to find jobs today. It's difficult for kids to find their way. They find the divisions, I think, disturbing. There's a lot of stress around for young people, and the pandemic has only made that worse. And so, you dwell on that, and then this story really is about how two characters who were both lost found their way. So that's why I thought, 'Oh, it'll be my family movie.'”
Released in December, “News of the World” is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language.