NEWS OF THE WORLD – movie review


Universal Pictures

Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Paul Greenglass
Writer: Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Angelo Covino, Ray McKinnon, Marc Winnigham
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 12/17/20
Opens: December 25, 2020

News of the World film poster.png

When I was a kid, say 9 years old, I couldn’t get enough of Westerns on TV and in the movies, though in a recent interview Tom Hanks said “they don’t make Westerns any more.” My favorite heroes were Gabby Hayes, who played a toothless, bearded gent for comic relief; Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. Every story of the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian scout Tonto, ended with “Hi Yo Silver. Away!” Its only classic notion was the theme music from the overture to the opera William Tell, which I always use first to introduce high school kids to classical music.

Occasionally a Western had real class, with “High Noon” standing so far above the rest that it stayed in my mind as the Greatest of the genre. Westerns today are so rare that “News of the World” can be welcomed indeed. It may or may not have resonance with twelve-year-olds today, though there’s a good chance that one of the two principal actresses, Berlin-born is Helena Zengel, a 12-year-old playing a Johanna Leonberger, may connect with them. Kids today may marvel that she can speak English, German and Kiowa—that last word taken from an Indian tribe that originated in Western Montana and whose name means “principal people.”

We’ve come a long way from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and any of that genre that portrayed Indians as the bad guys, whooping it up on battle and taking white scalps to show their courage. In these older westerns the U.S. cavalry were the good guys who arrived in the nick of time to save a family, announcing their courageous entry with blasts of the bugle.

In this drama, Tom Hanks in the role of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd in the year 1870 in northern Texas, now makes a living reading newspapers in towns where the people either had no newsstands and were probably illiterate. They were interested in news of their area, though later in the story they would find not only amusement but incitement when Captain Kidd, suddenly turning Marxist, reads to the people of Pennsylvania miners who fought back against their bosses, who were not particularly concerned about the yearly deaths of these employees.

The story turns on the relationship between the Captain and the blond child, the latter having lost her parents via an Indian raid, was adopted by the tribe where she learned the Kiowa language, and has only a rudimentary understanding of German. In fact when Kidd, who finds her and dedicates himself to taking her to her aunt and uncle (whom she hated), refuses to identify herself as Johanna, instead taking her Kiowa name, Cicada.

The road movie involves the growing bond between a man in his sixties and an anxious girl over three-score years his junior. As they ride toward the relatives, they run into problems. The first involves a trio of bad guys with rifles who try to buy the girl from the captain for fifty dollars, set on making money by pimping her out. When he refuses, they chase him. In the story’s best action sequence, the captain has to take out all three, which he does using advanced military strategy of its time—with the help of the girl who in a later action scene saves him again.

The movie has resonance today as the solitary captain, wandering from town to town to deliver the news, finds a tree where a Black man has been lynched, a note on the body inscribed “Texas says no. This is White man’s Country.” When the captain and his young charge ride through a no-man’s land, they find a town seemingly owned by Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who brags about how he lorded over the Indians, Mexicans, and Blacks. (Guess who would play Farley most realistically today!) Buffalo bodies are strewn across the land. (Remember them? There must be a few remaining).

Paul Greenglass, who directs and co-wrote, may be best known today for films of greater action such as “Jason Bourne” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” here settling down to concentrate on the bonding experience of man and girl. We all know that Tom Hanks can do no wrong, but we take surprise in the energy cast by young Zengel, who is both vulnerable and fierce, resisting the adult at first based on her memories of older people, and of course yielding to the love that she feels for her new adopted dad.

Here the actions scenes might be considered a temporary relief from the quiet seriousness, but both action and sentiment are conveyed with authenticity as is the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski in the proud blue state of New Mexico.

118 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

ONE CHILD NATION – movie review

Amazon Studios
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 7/25/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

One Child Nation Movie Poster

It’s not only reactionary states like Alabama that want to control women’s bodies by restricting their reproductive rights. The oppression was far worse in China for thirty five years, ending only a couple of years ago when the government in Beijing aborted the law. “One Child Nation” deals with the Chinese policy of allowing only one child per family, reasoning that the country would be more prosperous and peaceful as a result of cutting back on overpopulation. But there was nothing peaceful about the way they enforced the edict. Not satisfied with splashing billboards with happy trios of mom, dad and child and using kitsch propaganda shows on TV trying to impress the folks to do their patriotic duty, the village elders, acting like Nazis looking for hidden Jews during the 1940s caught families hiding their second child, fined the mom and dad beyond the family budget, and for good measure took away the product of disobedience.

But wait, its worse. A lot worse. The hapless baby would be trafficked over to orphanages which would pretend that the little ones had no parents and would do international commerce in recruiting families interested in adoption and charging them, $10,000, $20,000 and up per child. This would explain why some of our fellow Americans have adopted Chinese babies in their homes who when grown up would never realize that they had siblings in China.

But wait once again! To ensure that women in China would obey the restrictive reproductive laws, they would force pregnant women who already had one child to have the fetus aborted. For good measure, the women would be sterilized. As cited in the most prescient comment in this documentary, it may be ironic that American states restrict abortion while China coerces the procedure, but in the end, both China and particular American states are controlling women’s bodies. This is what makes Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s colorfully photographed movie of special interest to an American audience.

Exceptions were made to such an extent that up to half of the Chinese families were given permission to transcend the one-child rules. The exceptions would be mainly for rural people and those whose first-borns are girls, but even there, prospective parents would have to allow five years’ separation between the two. Yes, boys are still valued over girls. Some personal discussion humanizes the film as we hear director Wang’s interviews with her own kin. Her name Nanfu = man + pillar, indicating her parents’ wish for a boy. In Wang’s own community, a midwife boasts that she performed 50,000 abortions and sterilizations, the whole idea motivated as members of this profession would be rewarded if their village had a low birth rate.

The one-child policy which went into effect in 1979 and continued until 2015 has changed, but Chinese are still not free. The current propaganda films call for two children per family, though Wang and Zhang do not look into how this new ideology is enforced. The rationale is that more young people are needed in the work force and can later serve to take care of the older folks. Whether China desires cannon fodder for the next war is also not covered.

One heroic American couple, Brian Stuy and Long Lan Stuy who have three adopted Chinese daughters discuss their organization, Research China, designed to help parents locate the children removed from their care and women in general to seek their sisters who are now abroad. The organization urges involved Chinese to spit into a cup, using their DNA to search for the lost youngsters. Sometimes a Chinese woman would find that her sister was in the U.S. and would text her but would be fearful to ask for the exact location figuring that this would prompt an “unfriending,” as the Chinese-American would fear being Shanghaied.

This is not only a valuable documentary, one that would have been censored had it been finished in China rather than in the U.S., but is particularly heartbreaking for those Americans who had already adopted Chinese kids only to find out that they may have mommies and daddies in the People’s Republic.

85 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+