The film focuses on the prejudice and division its characters must overcome. Its director says this 'beautiful' story is what we all need now.
As befits a man who started in documentaries with World in Action, before making films about Stephen Lawrence and 9/11, Paul Greengrass wants to talk about the news. These days that means a focused rant about the government and Covid-19. He mentions basic competence and uses the term "absolute clown". His new film, News of the World, is a western, set in 1870, but he says it is as close to a movie about the pandemic as he is likely to make. It is a story about two characters undergoing a terrible ordeal, who need to come to terms with what has happened to them and move forward.
News of the World is not, therefore, the story of a certain closed newspaper — even if that is exactly the sort of film Greengrass would make. It is about lonely Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), a man who travels around Texas reading out the news. He finds a scared young white girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). For various reasons she had been living happily with Native Americans before being taken from them. Begrudgingly Kidd agrees to return her to her Germanic settler roots. It is a classy affair, packed with western tropes of division, prejudice, horses. Think Dances with Wolves meets The Mandalorian, with a lot of shots of Hanks looking worried in barren scenery. It will find a huge number of fans.
It helps, of course, that it will be on Netflix during a lockdown. We have become a captive audience of zombified viewers, happy to watch almost anything, so imagine the reaction this Oscar-challenging oater, delivered straight to our lounges, could have.
It should have been in cinemas. There is a terrific, lengthy shootout on a rock face that would have leapt off the big screen. There were rattlesnakes on set. However, barely any cinemas are open now, so the studio had to get sensible. Not every film is No Time to Die, which is rolling out even slower than a lorry in Dover.
"In the end," Greengrass says, "if you believe in the future of movies, you've got to release some movies. That's the point, isn't it? This is a statement of faith that, you know, we are going to come through this and movies will be there. If we all just delay our films for ever? Well, that just makes the problem worse."
The director is on Zoom, in his attic room. It is neat and clean. Perhaps his big white hair and white beard are due to lockdown, but when one of my kids spots him he asks if I am speaking to Santa Claus. Think of his best films — The Bourne Ultimatum, with its Waterloo station opening; the rush and power of United 93; the tense, poignant Captain Phillips — and you'll remember the jitter. A camera unable to stay still. In person, though, the 65-year-old is the opposite. Generous company, giving voluble and thoughtful monologues; sort of like Hanks in News of the World, in fact. Greengrass is a man whose job it is to share.
He fell in love with cinema as a child, growing up in Gravesend in Kent feeling like an outsider. He saw the medium as David Lean did. "I would look at that light as a pious boy might react to a shaft of sunlight in a cathedral," Lean said of what he experienced while sitting in a cinema, and Martin Scorsese has said much the same. Greengrass says he felt empowerment like that too. Yet with the seemingly unstoppable collapse of the cinema industry worldwide, there will inevitably be fewer intense experiences of that kind for a whole new generation.
Does that concern him? "Well, I'm a naturally optimistic person," he begins. "But I'm not blind to issues in the movie business. It's facing two crises in one. The first is Covid, which means nearly all cinemas are closed and productions severely impaired. But I'm confident that, by summer, films will be back as a going concern in cinemas.
"But," he continues, "and this is the real issue, that's only part of the crisis. The second is a change from the dominance of theatrical distribution to streaming. But that doesn't trouble me. I know it troubles some people, yet, in any case, it's not going to change anything because it's driven by two things you can't buck. First, technology, which makes global content a reality. Second, consumer choice. People want to watch their movies at the click of a button.
"That doesn't trouble me because I don't think it's going to be the end of the theatrical experience. It's going to be part of one offering; people will choose whether to see movies in theatres or to stream them. And that's OK."
Greengrass's last film was 22 July, an inevitably tough look at the Norwegian massacre carried out by Anders Breivik. It was released on Netflix in 2018, and a few months ago he got the latest figures. More than 30 million people had seen it. Greengrass loves this — those are staggering numbers for that film, and many viewers, he says, are young. His teenage children told him kids their age would not visit the cinema for such arthouse fare, but would watch at home. That is the positive news — there is an audience for very challenging work. However, watching at home surely limits a film's impact. Those superb cinematic wide shots in, say, Lawrence of Arabia were dreamt up by directors with a lifetime immersed in actual cinemas. What will be lost, I wonder, when tomorrow's film-makers have grown up watching films on their phones?
"Well, I grew up in a world where the power of cinematic imagery hitting me as a small boy was in a theatre in the dark," he says. "But if I were that age today the power would be hitting me in a digital, string theory conception of a world where everything exists in a multiplicity of dimensions all at once. And that's where the power of the images will lie. You can see that with kids. They are going like this . . ." Greengrass waves his hands all over the place, mimicking touching many buttons. "They're doing it all simultaneously and that has its own power. I mean, it's hugely disruptive, but it's unleashing energy and storytelling."
Greengrass, of course, has tended to shoot the way he describes the future of cinema as being — with immense energy. It is why United 93 worked well. His camera shifted around the cabin of the aircraft hijacked on 9/11 as if it were as terrified to be there as the passengers. In News of the World, though, he slows it down. "I have shot a lot of action stuff, but it's not that kind of film. I'm in a different period now and wanted to slow down the film-making a bit." That suits the ragged scenery — when you have the colours and depth of rural America on show, you might as well let the camera linger over it. Hanks's face deserves such time spent on it as well; it's as worn as the valleys. His parts are, arguably, getting better with age.
"He's a very sensitive bloke, Tom," Greengrass says, beaming. "To stand by him? And watch him do what he does? When I hang up my boots, it'll be one of the things I remember as a great professional thrill. The soul of the man is beautiful. It has to be, because it comes out in his acting. And that niceness, which is true of him, protects the vulnerable part inside him. He can access it incredibly easily. It makes you want to protect him. In many ways he's taken for granted."
Woody of Toy Story aside, this is Hanks's first western. A surprise, perhaps, but the genre has hardly been at its height during his career. It comes and goes — excellent work this century such as Brokeback Mountain and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada are rarities rather than a rule. The genre, though, has always been, regardless of decade, part-adventure, part-allegory — whether exploring postwar society or civil rights, what you see up on screen is, even more than in other types of film, just one part of what the director is trying to say. "You have to believe resonance is there," Greengrass agrees. "Otherwise why make the film? Certainly why would I? Because I tend to make films about where we are. But you've got to be discreet and allow it to emerge. To not preach. It's about your audience coming to the ideas themselves, rather than being pushed. I think the way you do that is to frame the film in your mind as a question rather than an answer.
"The resonance for me," he continues, "began with 22 July. I was concerned about right-wing extremism. Back then I was going to make a film in Lampedusa — I was interested in the migration crisis. But I realised Lampedusa is not where that story is. Instead it was in Norway, which showed how mass migration drives our politics into fear and violence. Then that film left me thinking, 'How do we get out of this mess?' I mean the division. Divisions are only getting more entrenched, bitter and angry. I've got kids. You sit there and think, 'For f***'s sake. How are we going to get out of this?'
"So that became the question. You're never going to get rid of division, but this is profoundly off-kilter. What's the road to healing?"
Around the same time he was sent a novel, News of the World, by the American author Paulette Jiles. He thought it was beautiful — all about Captain Kidd and Johanna trying to overcome obstacles. That appealed after the toil of 22 July. "If you're going to make a movie about the road out of this, you've got to believe," he insists. "You're talking to your kids all the time, saying, 'It's not gonna be like this for ever.' And that's the world of these characters and the story — it gave me the answer to the question I'm asking."
Earlier this month Greengrass put his name to a letter to The Sunday Times asking the government to save financially ruined cinemas during the pandemic. I emailed him to ask why he wanted to support the campaign, and he replied with a mention of Lean again, coming across, more than when we spoke, as a cinema evangelist — praising the big-screen experience over something on a sofa.
"In these troubled and bitterly divided times, we need the mystical, healing power of cinema more than ever," he wrote. It was his next line, though, that struck me the most. It explains exactly why — however he makes them and however we see them — this man makes the films he does, as earnest and accessible as he is.
"In darkness," he continued, "watching that bright light illuminate the screen, we can explore collectively who we were, who we are and who, if we listen to our better angels, we might become in the future."
News of the World is available on Netflix from February 10.
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London