“To move forward, you must first remember.”
What does it mean to journey home when you have no home? What would The Odyssey have been about if Odysseus had no Penelope waiting for him in Ithaca? Paul Greengrass’s News of the World, based on the best selling novel by Paulette Jiles, is just that kind of story.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former Confederate soldier, travels from town to town in Texas as a news reader. Most people are too busy to bother reading newspapers (if they can read). Kidd comes to town with a collection of newspapers from around the world and serves as a non-fiction storyteller. He tells of things in Asia and Africa. He may relate sad news of a meningitis outbreak in a nearby town. He brings news of other Texas towns, or of survivors of a mine disaster in Pennsylvania. He is entertaining, but can also be serious, addressing life under the Reconstruction military occupation.
On the road one day, he comes across a wrecked wagon and finds a lynched black man hanging nearby. He also finds a young, blond, blue-eyed girl dressed in buckskins like a Native American. He finds papers that says she is Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel). Her parents had been killed by Kiowas. She was taken in and raised by them. She knows no English (although she may remember a little German). Johanna (who doesn’t know that name—her name is Cicada) is wary of Kidd, but more in fear of the soldiers who come along. She reluctantly goes with Kidd. The first thing she says to him (which he cannot understand) is “Home. I just want to go home.” But she has no home. Her Kiowa parents are dead. She is being sent back by the government to live with an aunt and uncle.
Kidd takes her to the next town, where he learns that the Indian agent will be back in three months. He can wait or take her to her aunt and uncle hundreds of miles away. So these two reluctant travelers set off on a journey in which, like Odysseus, they will find those who befriend them, but many who would do them harm. But even if they overcome the obstacles of the journey, what will await them at the end of their journey?
Although the story is set in 1870, it reflects many themes that are all too familiar to today’s world. There is great bitterness among many over the loss of the Civil War and the Union occupation. At one reading, there is great anger as Kidd reads about President Grant requiring Texas to accept the new amendments to the Constitution (13, 14, and 15) before it can be readmitted. This is a world of polarization, racism (towards Native Americans and blacks), and lawlessness.
In one town they travel through, the town boss is interested in Kidd’s news reading, but only wants things from his paper read. (Hello, Fox News) That is the extreme of the sense of isolation and insularity that all the towns reflect. As a news reader, Kidd is bringing the outside world to these communities, and with it a different way of looking at things.
That different way of understanding the world plays out in the relationship between Kidd and Johanna. Raised in the Kiowa traditions, Johanna sees the world as a whole—the circle of earth and sky. Kidd explains to her that for white people, it is always a line, heading forward. But for Kidd, that line really isn’t moving forward. His itinerant life is really a way of avoiding a loss he cannot bear to confront.
The idea of home comes up frequently throughout the film, beginning with Johanna’s first words. We wonder what home she wants to go to. She has been orphaned twice. She barely remembers her birth parents (but she does find her way to the cabin they lived in). She does not know the aunt and uncle she is being sent to. When she sees a band of Kiowa across the river she calls out for them to wait for her, but they are too far away to hear her cry. So there are three homes that have or might make up her life.
Kidd on the other hand is homeless. He travels from town to town, but never back to San Antonio where his life was before the war. While Odysseus wished he could make a straight line home to Ithaca, Kidd seems to be doing all he can to avoid returning home. When he does it is filled with sorrow. But it also frees him to find a new life, a new reality.
This film asks us to see the brokenness that is so prevalent in the world around us. How will we respond to such a world? Will we focus only on ourselves and our immediate surroundings? Do we only care about what is happening to us, to our neighbors, our community? Will we hear the stories of different people near and far? Will we find our freedom in being open to those we do not know, but who will bring their world to ours?
News of the World is playing in theaters where open.
Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures.