British director Paul Greengrass is known for his work on the “Jason Bourne” films with Matt Damon.
He's also known for movies based on recent historical events like “Captain Phillips,” which looked at the 2009 hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, and “United 93” about the plane that went down in Pennsylvania on 9/11. But for his new film opening Christmas Day, "News of the World," Greengrass makes a foray into historical fiction.
Set in Texas in 1870, the movie is based on the novel by Paulette Jiles. Tom Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who ekes out a living going from town to town performing readings from newspapers. He encounters Johanna Leonberger, a 10-year-old girl played by Helena Zengel who calls herself Cicada.
Cicada had been kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe six years earlier and raised as one of their own. But when soldiers kill her Kiowa family, Cicada is left alone. Kidd decides to take her to her only living relatives and on the way, the two learn each other's language.
Greengrass says he wanted to work on something new with this project. Something about the story of a lonely man who has lost everything connecting people through reading the news — a form of storytelling — resonated with him.
“[Kidd] meets the mysterious young girl in the woods and essentially the journey they go on, ostensibly it's to take her back to her surviving family,” Greengrass says. “But really, it's a journey in search of where to belong in the divided world.”
During the Reconstruction era, the campaign against Indigenous people in Texas began in full force. And the railroad would soon change the American West. The era’s “bitter division,” grief and loss, and sense that technology will change the world also resonated with Greengrass.
Greengrass reached out to the Kiowa tribe and received “extensive help” from the elders in making the film, he says. And Kiowa members are featured in the scenes that depict the tribe.
Hanks gives one of the best performances of his career in this film, Greengrass says. He couldn’t ask for a more doughty, experienced partner in crime than Hanks.
“When you make a film, that relationship — filmmaker with the leading actor — you carry the load ultimately on your shoulders together, the two of you,” he says. “And it often feels like you're walking through sort of a dense forest in a fog at night with a small flashlight.”
The film opening at a time when many moviegoers are avoiding theaters disappoints and devastates Greengrass. People were meant to see the cinematography and performances on the big screen, he says.
But releasing the film makes “a statement of faith in the movies,” he says.
“If we believe that things will come back, and I do believe that they will come back … we have to act as we believe,” he says. “Light a tiny beacon in a dark night and say, ‘The dawn will come.' ”
This segment aired on December 23, 2020.