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Saving America through the power of news: Tom Hanks and News of the World

Jim Bilton reviews the latest Tom Hanks film and ponders its lessons for media today.

By Jim Bilton

Saving America through the power of news: Tom Hanks and News of the World

Here is a bitterly divided America

The country is rebuilding its economy after years of self-destructive disruption. Disease is ripping through ravaged communities. Racism is rife. The law enforcement agents intimidate innocent people. There is a grumbling anger among ordinary people who feel they have no voice – no economic power and no political influence over their future. That anger is feeding intolerance and social division; it is also erupting into violence and the rule of the gun.

This is not 2021, but the Texas of 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War. It is the setting for Tom Hanks’ latest film, News of the World – a story about storytelling.

Hanks stars as the war veteran, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who now travels from town to town to tell the news to “anyone with ten cents to hear it… I'm here to bring you all the news from across this great world of ours”. He is what they used to call a “news reader”.

Kidd carries with him an armful of newspapers, which he reads from in his evening performances to semi-literate audiences who have paid a dime a seat to listen. Politics, economics, catastrophes, human daring, ripping yarns from around the country and around the world – one of his favourite sources is the Times of India.

Yet Kidd finds himself in a story of his own when he comes across ten-year-old Johanna on the road. The child of German immigrants, she was taken in by the Kiowa people and raised as one of their own, but was being taken back to her biological aunt and uncle when the soldier escorting her was killed. Kidd finds her and is forced to protect her. The stories of these two hurting people with tragic pasts are now intertwined as they gradually come to rebuild their lives with each other.

Tom Hanks is always saving something

The film critics are divided as to how good a film News of the World actually is. Yet all are agreed that it has some brilliant elements to it and that only Tom Hanks could pull it off without making it too schmaltzy, especially the upbeat ending.

Tom Hanks has built a film career out of saving everybody and everything. In addition to Saving Private Ryan and Saving Mr Banks, Hanks has also saved a spaceship (Apollo 13), a plane (Sully), a ship (Captain Phillips), a newspaper (The Post) and a TV show (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood). Amongst other things.

Journalists and the media generally also play a big part in Hanks’ output. Social media are in the background of Sleepless in Seattle; a cynical hack is in the foreground of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood; and The Post is explicitly all about journalism and media ownership. As a real-life postscript, it is ironic that The Washington Post is now in the hands of Jeff Bezos, one of the new generation of media moguls, but that is another story for another article…

So, News of the World is not a Citizen Kane or an All the President’s Men. Or even The Post. Yet it is still as much a “media film” as they are. And it is even more evangelical about the power and importance of information, education and a free and independent press in a world of fake news and media manipulation. The result of all this is a curious hybrid of a film – and a typically Tom Hanks one – the Media Western.

The media backstory

The film’s back-story is a very obvious parable about the role of media in the toxic “Trump America” of 2021. It also brings to life a number of issues which we, as a media industry, are constantly debating… paid content, the importance and value of objective journalism, the curation and analysis of news, media ownership, podcasting and live events. And so on.

To translate the human story of the film into cold media-speak… it is all actually about creating new revenue models in a disrupted industry. The Tom Hanks character was a newspaper printer whose business was flattened by the Civil War. Yet Kidd goes on to use his knowledge of the industry to create a new living, by reading the news in live performances, rather than printing it – content curation and distribution, rather than content creation or production. He reinvents himself as a perambulating podcast. This paid content, micropayment model (a dime per seat for his podcast) is much tighter margin than the old print business (being a news reader is “not a rich man’s occupation” according to Kidd) and it demands new skills – live performance being one of them. Also, it only works financially because he has cut his “cost base” to the bone – a wagon and a saddlebag of newspapers.

There is also a passing reference in the storytelling to the role of the media owner. In a town called Erath, Kidd hits a community ruled by an ego-driven war lord called Farley, who publishes his own newspaper, the Erath Journal, to glorify his exploits and his world view (“no Mexicans, Indians or Blacks”). Kidd’s answer is to read from newspapers from other regions of the USA. This ferments a rebellion against the Farley / Trump character in the film.

Yet behind the need to earn money in a new way in a new world, Kidd feels a deeper mission. This is to lift the vision of ordinary people from the grinding day-to-day reality of their lives – and the anger and depression that this was creating – to a bigger, broader, more inclusive and more generous future.

Good old Tom is in salvation mode again. This time, he is saving a nation through the power of news.

The real-life distribution challenge

Distributing media products in a world of censorship, propaganda and media manipulation is a current, real-life issue.

Yet go back to 1941, and Orson Wells faced the fury of William Randolph Hearst, who used his power to try to close down the screening of Citizen Kane and his own newspapers and magazines to vilify Wells’ character. The machinations of a real-life media mogul were even more scary than the fictional Kane.

Zip back to the present day, and News of the World has faced a different kind of distribution problem, caused by the pandemic and the closure of cinemas. What Universal Pictures did was to “theatre” the movie in physical cinemas in the USA on Christmas Day 2020 and then stream it on Netflix from February 2021 on. Netflix bought the non-USA distribution rights for an undisclosed sum as part of an unexpected deal with AMC Theatres. Under the pact, Universal can put new movies on video-on-demand within weeks of premiering in theatres without fear that AMC, the world’s biggest cinema chain, would boycott their movies. In return, AMC gets a cut of the digital profits. New distribution models for a new world.

So, what do we make of all this?

Is News of the World a good film? Personally, I love it, but then I am a fan of Tom Hanks and a sucker for happy endings.

Is News of the World an important film? Not in the way that Citizen Kane, All the Presidents’ Men and even The Post are. Yet the film raises important issues about the media for a broader non-media audience.

And can the media save America? News media can help to create an open ground for sensible and logical debate above the current anger. Lifestyle media can lift our vision from the daily grind to sunny uplands and the Big Picture. Yet probably the best answer is to make Tom Hanks President.

Where would you place News of the World in the list of all-time great media films? Would it be your favourite? InPublishing and Wessenden Marketing are currently conducting a survey of media insiders to see what their all-time favourite films, TV series and books about the media business are. Please let us know your choice.