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Paul Greengrass on News of the World: ‘Storytelling is under direct attack’

For his new film News of the World, director Paul Greengrass has travelled back in time to an America that’s broken and divided. Where can he have got that idea from?
Read all about it: Tom Hanks takes the news to the people of the frontier towns. Credit: Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix

Tom Hanks performed the most important role of his career last month. Presenting from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Celebrating America was a star-studded spectacular, with Bruce Springsteen, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Katy Perry and last week’s Big Issue cover hero Dave Grohl heralding the inauguration of President Biden.

Hanks was chosen as host with the most chance of reuniting the United States. And his status as the most loved, trusted, relatable and honourable Hollywood actor plays a big part in his new film, News of the World.

Set in the days before people got their news via viral videos and dodgy social networks, Hanks plays a former soldier turned newsreader, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who tours the still-pretty wild western states reading newspapers in frontier towns to crowds gathered in barns or town squares. 

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With Civil War scars still healing, it’s an age of unrest, uncertainty and fear very like our own, as Kidd, simply because he’s a decent bloke played by Tom Hanks, undertakes a mammoth mission to reunite a young girl kidnapped by a native tribe with her family.

British director Paul Greengrass has a long history of making films, often based on true stories, that reflect the times, from Bloody Sunday and United 93 to his previous collaboration with Hanks, Captain Phillips. Even his fiction films pack a punch in more ways than one, with The Bourne Supremacy setting a trend for action films that ask bigger questions about identity and the politics of violence.

He tells The Big Issue why News of the World tells a story that looks back in order for us all to move forward.

The Big Issue: Can you describe the America News of the World is set in?

Paul Greengrass: The story takes place in the shadow of the Civil War, a broken, dark and dangerous time. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead, communities are bitterly divided, and the road towards healing those divisions is not there. Who knows how to do it? Is there a will to do it? 

History repeating itself…?

I think that’s pretty much where we all are, whether we’re in America or Europe. And so when I read the story of this lonely newsreader who wanders from small community to small community he felt like a character who was trying to make connections with this audience through the healing power of storytelling. He’s a tiny thread that starts to reconnect people. Then he meets this mysterious little girl and goes on a journey to take her back to what he thinks is her surviving family. That is the road to healing. Ultimately, they face their past and can move ahead.

There’s a line that feels like it’s at the heart of the film: “To move forward you must first remember.”

One of the privileges of filmmaking is that you get to have a lifelong conversation with yourself about what you think’s important – how the world is changing, how you change inside. Each film I make is my attempt to make sense of the world I live in as best I can. I’m a parent, I’ve got kids, and you worry about the future in a way that I never used to before.

Is it a contradiction that your film about the future is also the one set furthest in the past?

The story enabled me to see an endpoint to the journey that you can’t see looking forward from today. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out, we don’t know what’s going to happen to our deeply divided, Brexit fucked-up land. How are we ever going to come together? We will, of course, but how, when, what’s it going to feel like? And by the way, if you lived in France or Germany or Spain or Italy or the US, you’re asking versions of the same questions.

Paul Greengrass
Paul-Greengrass
Director Paul Greengrass. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

So how are we going to get beyond this place?

Young people will get us beyond it. You can’t see it ahead of us but when you go back to the time of the story about these two insignificant characters something about it resonates. They found where they belonged – it wasn’t where they thought it was, but they got to a better place.

Both of the main characters are homeless of sorts in a country largely made of new migrants. How much is a sense of displacement at the root of many of the problems in America?

Utterly and profoundly. Displacement, feeling lost, like you don’t belong, this sense of dislocation and loss of identity runs right the way across Europe, America and elsewhere. The post-Civil War landscape enables you to see it more clearly.

The film is about the power of telling stories.

We are the storytelling animal. We tell stories to our children when they’re little. We tell stories in the home. We tell stories in the pubs and cafes. We tell stories in our theatres and cinemas. The problem today is that storytelling is under direct attack. First of all, obviously, we’re not allowed to gather in pubs or street corners or in our homes. We’re not allowed to go to the cinema. So the collective connection of storytelling is being denied to us. But on top of that, we’re living in an era where storytelling is itself under political attack because there are forces that want to turn truth into lies and lies into truth. 

What are the consequences of not valuing stories and having that communal experience?

We become isolated one from another and that’s not our nature. I believe in the power of storytelling, I spent my life doing it. I believe in the collective experience of it and cinemas will come back. We will gather together again with our friends and tell stories, wherever it is, and those connections will start to be stitched together again.

News of the World is available on Netflix from February 10