Film history is filled with notable directors who made a Western after establishing themselves in other genres. That list includes Robert Altman (“McCabe and Mrs. Miller”), Charlie Chaplin (“The Gold Rush”), Ethan and Joel Coen (“True Grit”), John Huston (“The Unforgiven” 1960), Louis Malle (“Viva Maria”), Alejandro G. Inarritu (“The Revenant”), Sydney Pollack (“Jeremiah Johnson”) and Sam Raimi (“The Quick and the Dead”).
Joining that lofty roster is Paul Greengrass, with Universal’s “News of the World,” starring Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel. This horse opera, as Variety used to call the genre, follows Greengrass’ high-adrenaline movies such as “United 93,” “Captain Phillips,” three “Bourne” films and the riveting 2018 fact-based “22 July,” about a 2011 terrorist attack in Norway.
Greengrass tells Variety, ” ’22 July,’ which is on a dark subject — right-wing extremists — left me with a question as a parent: What is the road out of this bitter division that we’re in? I wanted to make a film about the road to healing. I also wanted to do a different sort of film.”
The setting and tempo of Oscar contender “News” are unlike his earlier works, but the film still reflects his concerns. Most Westerns deal with classic themes, such as personal honor and good vs. evil. “News of the World” includes those but is also more topical than most, since it centers on a nation divided — split by a pandemic, despots, racial tension and economic fears.
In that sense, it’s similar to “High Noon,” from another shifting-gears filmmaker, Fred Zinnemann. The plots are totally different, but that 1952 Western was also a parable about the times — in that case, the McCarthy HUAC hearings.
Greengrass says, “When they sent me the novel, I thought this is ‘The Searchers’ in reverse,” since the protagonist wants to deliver the girl, not to find her. “It’s the two characters’ journey to find out where each belongs, so they can come to terms with their loss. This story, set in 1870, will enable me to make a film to answer for myself: What’s the way out? What is the road we all have to travel? It won’t be easy but I’m an optimistic person.”
When reading the novel by Paulette Jiles, Greengrass was most interested in the character of Kidd. “He’s a lonely newsreader who wanders from town to town, reading in candlelit barns to dusty town squares. He’s lost everything except a few newspapers and the healing power of storytelling. He understood his audience. He understood that everyone was in a shadow of terrible conflict,” trying to recover from the Civil War.
Greengrass says his team “could feel the ghosts” of past filmmakers, but realized “we mustn’t be intimidated by those great directors who brought this great landscape to us in movies we saw as children.”
When talking of Hollywood Westerns, the names most frequently invoked are John Ford, Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway, but the pantheon of Western directors also includes Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, Monte Hellman, Don Siegel and Raoul Walsh.
However, it should be noted that some notable filmmakers never ventured out West, including Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, Sidney Lumet and Billy Wilder.
Greengrass has high praise for his actors and his behind-the camera artists. “I wanted a slower tempo rather than pushing all the time, and allowing the characters to find themselves. These people helped me find a new direction, different rhythms and styles.”
He concludes: “Their understanding of their craft is so profound. As director, you’re the conductor. You have to synthesize this into a whole. These are magical things that leave you thinking it is the greatest privilege to make a movie. I’ve never lost my sense of wonder and joy.”