Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel, News of the World, sold 850,000 copies, got shortlisted for the National Book Award, and was hailed as a Western for our times before its film rights were quickly acquired. Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (played by Tom Hanks in the screen adaptation, premiering Christmas Day), a Texan who travels from town to town reading newspapers to a predominantly illiterate public, and his unlikely friendship with a 10-year-old girl (Helena Zengel) he rescues from the Native Americans who kidnapped her. Kidd agrees to return the girl to her closest living relatives, near San Antonio, and together the pair travel hundreds of miles through a postwar American West.
News of the World has been compared to both John Ford’s The Searchers and Charles Portis’s True Grit. But what interested its director and co-writer, Paul Greengrass, whose previous work includes three of the Bourne thrillers and Captain Phillips, also starring Hanks, are the story’s parallels with the present. “Even though it’s set then, it’s a film about our times,” Greengrass said in a recent interview. If it’s hard to imagine a more divided America than the one of today, this film is a reminder of what it was like during and immediately following the Civil War. “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.... 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.”
The film also carries a message about the uniting power of truth. In 1870, “information was suspect,” said Greengrass. “The world was filled with rumors and false narratives. Audiences were never sure whom they could trust to tell them the truth.” Sound familiar? —Bridget Arsenault