After a brief theatrical run, big-budget Academy Awards contender News of the World was released on Jan. 15 for in-home viewing — joining hits like Wonder Woman 1984 that recently premiered on the small screen.
Based on the best-selling 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, the post-Civil-War story follows a former military captain (Tom Hanks) who stages public readings of news stories in small towns across Texas. In his travels, he happens upon an abandoned covered wagon and a young girl (Helena Zengel), whom he learns had been kidnapped. They journey to find her home.
Critics nationwide have hailed News of the World as a timely and absorbing revisionist Western. While a few scenes may be intense for the youngest viewers, many families have embraced it as a throwback narrative that speaks to current events.
In an interview last week, director Paul Greengrass spoke briefly to faith-based media outlets regarding the film, its themes, and his inspirations. The interview, which includes questions from a few other media outlets, has been lightly edited for length.
Telling Stories That Matter
You’ve been known for producing films about real-life stories such as Captain Phillips and United 93. Why did this recent novel set in the post-Civil-War era stand out to you as worth spending years bringing to the big screen?
Paul Greengrass: I had just made a film set in the real world about extremism, and I’d spent a period of time looking at scary [trends] in the darkest parts of the world. When I’d finished it a couple of years ago, I thought, “I want to make a film that my children can watch, a family film that’s about how we might find better days to come.” But I didn’t know what the story was yet.
Then, the strangest thing about moviemaking: a story [appears]. Suddenly three or six months later, I read a book. It’s a story about this lonely newsreader who’s lost everything after the Civil War, who goes from small town to small community. Gathering people in a dusty town square or an old barn, he’s got a couple of newspapers and, for a nickel, he reads the news. He tries to give people an escape from their troubles for an hour.
This character really spoke to me as a storyteller. He speaks to our world because 1870 is very resonant today. Then he meets this mysterious lost girl who’s been kidnapped, and he has to try and take her home. They go on this adventure. The whole thing felt like a journey towards better days to come.
From Paul Asay of Plugged In: Tom Hanks’ character serves almost like a prototype Internet. He’s bringing these stories from around the world to small towns. Does this movie have something to tell people who are watching it today, as we live in our own information age?
Greengrass: First, you never make a good movie if you start by thinking about what it is you want the audience [to] understand. At some point, you’re not telling a story then. You start with characters that people will identify with, a great story, and a great adventure or ride.
I [see] Captain Kidd in terms of moviemaking, because that’s what I do for a living. Kidd says upfront: “Let me take you away from your hard times.” He tells them human-interest stories from far-off places. He tells them local news, things that they need to know about the meningitis epidemic, transport problems, and technologies that are going to transform their lives. He also tells them the federal news, which might not be so welcome. These things they don’t want to hear about are indisputably going to change and rock their world.
He would not have a job if he sat down to ask, What lectures should I tell my audience tonight? He’s got to entertain. It’s the same in the movies. People today work hard, sunup to sundown. Life is tough—perhaps tougher now than ever in our lifetimes.
Ultimately, if people are going to give you the privilege of a couple hours of their time, you need to make them feel that they’ve been entertained. Along the way, if you make them think a little bit through a story that resonates with their lives and concerns, that’s a good thing. But it’s got to be secondary.
The Power of Sacrifice During Crisis
From Patheos blogger DeWayne Hamby: If I looked for a theme through your movies, it seems like there is the opportunity for someone who is ordinary to do extraordinary things by putting themselves in harm’s way for someone else. Is that something you look for?
Greengrass: I do, because it’s the reverse of a superhero. It’s an ordinary man doing extraordinary things. He is called upon to do what he or she might not think is possible, and that’s something all of us secretly wonder about. How would it be if we were called upon in some great crisis?
In many ways, living through this pandemic makes us think about that. Aren’t we, all of us, in our way, trying to look after our moms and dads and our wives and husbands and children and brothers and sisters?
We want to draw family close at a time of crisis as best we can and see if we can get through this tremendous period of difficulty [and] division. During times of bitter division, as we are in, it’s a natural thing to draw your family close.
From Leah Hutcherson of The Christian Post: What role has parenting played in your filmmaking career? Has it impacted how you make movies?
Greengrass: It’s huge. Your working life is only a part of your broader life. I’ve been blessed to have five children: three girls and two boys. They’re well on the way, with only one of them still [living] with us now; the others are back and forth all the time. But they’re still your children, even though they grow up and they’re over 21. They influence me in innumerable ways.
When you embark on a life in the movies, it involves a lot of commitment and time away from home. It takes a toll on your family. My wife and I were lucky to be given some early advice: You do it together. That’s the way we’ve done it.
When they were very little, we used to take them with us. We make movies as a family then deal with those difficulties—because my wife works, for instance. But it’s a better way, because otherwise it gets between you and your family.
As my children started to grow up, I definitely reflect on the way life has gone. The last two films I’ve made have had family stories at the heart of them because there’s a greater poignancy. As they get a little older, you feel the passage of time more keenly. My children are out in the world, at a time when it is bitterly divided and seemingly lacking the hope that I had when I was their age.
It’s difficult for kids to find jobs today, to find their way. They see disturbing divisions. Young people [face] incredible stress, and the pandemic has only made it worse. You dwell on: Is it going to be okay for them? Then this story is about two characters who were both lost and found their way. That’s what the world needs right now, which is why I made it.
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material, and some language, News of the World is now available via on-demand platforms.
Image: Universal Pictures
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.