Texas. 1870. The Civil War is over, but Texas hasn’t yet joined the Union as they’re not too sure about Articles 13-15 of the Constitution which would require them to free their slaves. Captain Jefferson Kidd is eking a living reading out summaries of news reports to an audience which has little access to the newspapers and is, presumably, largely illiterate.
On the edge of town, Kidd finds a black man hanging from a tree with a racist message attached to his chest. Cowering nearby is his charge – a young girl who, despite her blondeness, only appears able to speak in Kiowa, a native American language. Nearby papers, however, are in the name of Johanna.
It turns out that Johanna/Cicada was “orphaned twice” – first when “Indians” killed her parents, then when the Native Americans with whom she grew up were themselves butchered. Kidd later finds a Kiowa speaker who says that she now calls herself Cicada, but he overrides her choosing the name she grew up with, calling her Johanna throughout. This is typical of the liberal intervention which permeates the film.
In the story we are told that the only person with any moral compass is the white man in the centre of the story. Everything and everyone else is just bad. So, Native Americans defending their homes is just as bad as them being attacked by racist pioneers. Southern support for slavery is bad, but so are the Northern troops, who are seen as occupiers. As Kidd’s audience grumble at Ulysses Grant’s opposition to slavery, he sympathises with them. After all, he did fight in the Civil War on the side of the slave owners.
Despite the lip service paid to liberal values, the victims of racism are rarely seen, and never heard. We do witness characters moaning about “Indians, Blacks and Mexicans”, who are obviously not to be trusted, as racism is much too vulgar to be discussed openly. Similarly the poor men who pursue Kidd as they want to take Johanna/Cicada and force her into prostitution are obviously bad, yet one of Kidd’s final statements to the girl is “you belong to me”. Owning people is ok, as long as you are “nice”.
At one point, we encounter a part of Texas which has liberated itself and is now under the control of an oligarch who insists that Kidd reads from the newspaper that he has produced. I wonder which former president, the writers have in mind here. And yet Kidd’s alternative is not to encourage revolt, but to read a story about coal miners escaping a fire. As he says throughout the film, the point of his readings is not to inform people but to help them escape the world.
It may come as no surprize that Kidd is played by Tom Hanks, who has long been a watchword for liberal blandness. I have never understood the popularity of Hanks, who people seem to like because he is nice, non-threatening and doesn’t really stand for anything. I don’t know if its an insult or a compliment to say that he plays the mediocre Kidd to a T.
In contrast, as Cicada/Johanna, Helena Zengel shows some of the disturbed spirit that she showed in the remarkable Systemsprenger. Looking at her, you sense the anguish of a traumatic childhood. Yet, while Benni in Systemsprenger is allowed some agency, “Johanna” is just there as a victim to be saved by that nice white guy. Well, thanks for that.
None of this is to say that News of the World is a bad film. It is beautifully shot, and takes us from A to B with a neat efficiency. But there is absolutely no character development. I think that we’re supposed to see Kidd slowly come to terms with his responsibilities towards his young charge, but as Hanks is – as ever – averse to looking remotely bad, there is never any sense that he won’t love her (and this is why Zengel is a much better actor than Hanks will ever be).
It might help us understand the agenda of News of the World to look at recent media coverage of the Israeli bombing of Gaza. Ok, something bad just happened – what’s most important now is to start the healing process so that everyone loves each other and we don’t reopen old conflicts. But if you don’t confront the actual bad things that real people did, any healing process will only take place on the terms of those with most power.
NOTW hates injustice, but what it hates even more is people who stand up against injustice. Its problem is that all it can offer is an “aw, shucks” Tom Hanks. We deserve more than that.