News of The World (2020) is the story of a travelling news reader, shortly after the American Civil War, as he takes a long and dangerous journey to return a 10 year old girl to her family.
The ‘Western’ genre has gone from being an all pervasive TV and cinema genre into a niche historical fiction sub-genre. To exacerbate this decline, nothing really new has happened to the genre since the Spaghetti Western and the Revisionist Westerns of the 1960s Counter Culture. Films like Unforgiven (1993) have been acclaimed but not really taken the genre back to its former glory. (I included the Western in a recent post, Three American Stories.)
The Western is a problematic genre. It’s stuffed with cliché, considered old fashioned by many, and riddled with sexist and racist assumptions and stereotypes. For a long time, sanitised versions of the Western, along with sitcoms, were the comfort food of American TV. Today, in a world where the Hollywood blockbuster is dominated by the superhero (which itself goes back to the 1920s and 30s), the Western feels like the genre that’s had its time. It’s a story from the 19th Century that was mythologised in live action shows and pulp fiction the late 19th Century, and film and TV in the 20th Century.
In spite of this, there’s been a steady trickle of new films about the ‘Old American West’ (to give it its proper title). Some of the more recent examples of the genre include Seraphim Falls (2006), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), True Grit (2010), Django Unchained (2012), The Revenant (2015), and Bone Tomahawk (2015). The Western, with its vast landscapes, offers a great environment for the battle between good and evil to take place and for the individual to survive within the wilderness. It can still bring an elemental rawness to a story. It’s also a versatile genre because it can be used to cover big themes, revenge, love, power, political corruption, survival against the elements, and the fight for justice.
News of The World explores a dangerous and divided world. It’s a world that we might recognise in some of the news today — social division, rampant capitalism, and ordinary people struggling to eek an existence. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd begins as a reluctant hero. Through his journey, taking care of a ten year old girl, he comes to terms with his own loss and rediscovers his moral centre. It’s a story about coping with loss and trauma and reconnecting with individual humanity.
Greyhound, another film with Tom Hanks in the leading role, was also realeased in 2020. Like News of The World it is a work of historical fiction (a war film), this time taking place in the Second World War when an Atlantic convoy fights for survival against a pack of U-Boats. Even though Tom Hank’s character was at the centre of the story, it felt like the computer generated sea was its main character. In News of The World, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is at the epicentre of News of The World, with Johanna Leonberger / Cicada (the ten year old girl) a close second. I’ll take the landscapes of the Western over the rainy, stormy seascapes of the Atlantic any day. Overall, News of The World feels like a more balanced story.
The Captain in Greyhound isn’t sure if he has what it takes, and by the same account it’s difficult for the audience to fully believe in him. In News of The World Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a character that we can put our faith in, which feels a lot more satisfying.
Does News of The World do anything new or add to the Western in any remarkable way? Not really, but it’s a watchable and immersive cinematic experience. It’s a film about stories and storytelling. The main character turns the news into relatable stories for his audiences, in much the same filmmakers do.
News of The World is about the carnage of an American reality at a particular moment in history (drawing comparisons with today’s divided America). Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is the hero navigating through this land, responsibly sharing the news (in contrast to the hate-mongering and partisan smallness of today’s social media). His work provides a glimmer of hope for downtrodden citizens. Through his resilience he finds new meaning and his own sense of belonging.