“We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.” – Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
“No matter what side you were on, if you had survived Gettysburg you were to be congratulated.”
Watching News of the World for the second time (now available on VOD) I feel so many parallels to the era we’re living through now, a post-Civil War landscape of conflicting tribes that are ill-prepared or unwilling to humanize each other, let alone speak to each other. This was when the American West was being settled by white European immigrants, which meant a lot of bloodshed and the chain-reaction tragedies of Manifest Destiny.
The novel, written by Paulette Jiles, and was nominated for a National Book Award, came out in 2016, and thus came to be outside the world Trump has tried to remake and the way artists and writers have reacted to that. It was conceived, all the same, in a country very much polarized already, though the heat and resentment was simmering during the Obama years on the right, not the left. Once Trump took power that resentment and fury was mirrored on the left, as the country became more fractured than it has been since the time News of the World takes place.
Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies, who co-wrote the screenplay, with Greengrass directing, can’t escape the fact that many will watch the film and think about right now. One of the reasons it is such a satisfying watch, however, is that this is a primarily movie about the power of stories, why we human beings rely on them so much and why, when we lose touch with a shared story we lose touch with each other.
Tom Hanks plays someone whose chosen career is to ride throughout rough and tumble Texas and read the news aloud to rapt audiences, large and small. He comes upon one town whose leaders don’t want to hear the news he has to tell but would rather have tales told that would inflame the citizens. As Yuval Noah Harari says, if you can control the story, you can control the people. We’re coming out of a year where so many different groups have very different stories leading up to 2020 and much of the time those stories seemed to be designed to inflame rather than inform.
While the film is really about the relationship between two lost souls, a young girl taken by the Native Americans but then taken back (against her will) and Hanks who takes her along with him with the intention of dropping her off somewhere, leaving her with someone else. Much of the movie is just the two of them surviving difficult, sometimes violent situations but slowly developing mutual trust over time. We know where it’s going, more or less, but that doesn’t take away from how good it feels getting there.
What I liked most about the movie was that it shows how the future is a story we all agree to tell. Like those left ravaged by the Civil War, where nothing and no one came out of it unscathed, the film makes it clear that this country is a complex and complicated place with a fraught history, but one that can only be made worse or better by deciding whether to come together and repair what’s been ripped apart.
America is very much an unsettled place in January of 2021. Those who are in charge of delivering the news are not motivated by bringing the country together. They do better, from a profit standpoint, in a country that is sharply divided, otherwise how can they get viewers mad enough or outraged enough to tune in every day? What we say, what we decide, what stories we choose to tell will be passed on through the generations and eventually turn into history. Sometimes that history is right, and sometimes it is clearly wrong. Right now, this is what America is fighting for: whose story will we live to tell?
To quote the book:
“Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”
I have missed movies like News of the World, not just because it’s a large canvas, big studio movie with expansive set pieces, but because it’s one of those films that grabs your heart and takes you to an unexpectedly happy place. You can’t get there unless you watch the characters endure unimaginable hardship. Though potential horrors lurk around every bend, things never gets really bad in this film, never enough to derail the Western genre, but we come to like the characters enough that we want to see them live out the rest of their days on the happier side of their options. There is nothing more hopeful than that.