The hero in most Westerns arrives with a six-gun at his side. This one carries a stack of newspapers.
Truth, along with a dash of showmanship, is the weapon of choice for Captain Jefferson Kidd, Tom Hanks’s character in his first-ever Old West film, News of the World. The two-time Oscar winner plays a widower who travels through the Texas desert to perform a one-man show about true stories from afar. His goal, apart from gathering coins in his cup, is to bring people together and expand their perspective of the world.
“When the fabric of society is in tatters, you’ve got a character in Kidd, who in his lonely, singular, small way is a thread who connects one community to another,” director Paul Greengrass told Vanity Fair for this exclusive first look.
Hanks’s news reader finds his own point of view upended when he discovers the ruins of a smashed carriage in the middle of nowhere, and a lost little girl who is the only survivor. She speaks, but not his language. Figuring out who she is, how she got there, and where she belongs is more dangerous than he anticipates.
It’s not the first time that the girl, played by 12-year-old German actress Helena Zengel, has been rescued. As a toddler, she was found and raised by the Kiowa tribe, who are regarded with contempt by most white settlers who are encroaching on the land. She knows the Kiowa only as family, and the language she speaks is theirs.
News of the World, due out on December 25, is based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, but there is an undeniable vibe of The Searchers about it, the 1956 John Ford film set during the Texas Indian Wars, in which John Wayne tries to “rescue” Natalie Wood from a Comanche tribe that has actually welcomed and cared for her.
Greengrass considers the movie, which takes place in 1870 in a region reeling from endless conflict, as a kind of allegory. “Even though it’s set then, it’s a film about our times,” he said. “Neighbors and families and communities were in stark and often violent conflict with each other, and Americans needed to decide who they were as Americans.”
The director previously worked with Hanks on 2013’s Captain Phillips, and said he joined the project after appearing as a narrator in the Netflix documentary Five Came Back, based on Mark Harris’s 2014 book about the work of iconic Hollywood filmmakers during World War II. “I told the story of John Ford, and obviously I revere what he does as the great master of the Western,” Greengrass said. “So the Western as a genre and he in particular were very much in my mind, because he told the story of America, didn’t he? The mythic story of America.”
Hanks’s Captain Kidd isn’t quite as bullheaded as John Wayne’s cowboy, who decided he’d rather kill the girl he was trying to find than allow her to continue to live with the tribe. Kidd is a more bookish, thoughtful figure, one who yearns to find common ground after a lifetime marked by wars.
“That’s what I wanted the film to explore,” Greengrass said. “What’s the road out of this? What’s the road to healing look like? And in this story of this man and this little girl, these two characters, both of them for very different reasons are lost. The story for them is to work out where they each belong and how that works. And that’s what I wanted this Western to do.”
Even before he pairs up with the lost girl, Kidd doesn’t always find himself welcome in the towns he visits with his one-man journalism performance. “[There’s] enormous change happening to people who were bewildered by it and threatened by it in some cases, and he’s trying to make sense of it with them and for them,” the filmmaker said.
Just as now, journalism sparked anger then if it conflicted with the reader (or listener’s) existing worldview. “Information was suspect,” said Greengrass. “The world was filled with division, loss, economic hardship. The world was filled with rumors and false narratives. Audiences were never sure whom they could trust to tell them the truth.”