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Words carry a heavy burden in Paul Greengrass’s shaky new pseudo-Western “News of the World.” They can bring communities together for the possibility of shared knowledge, and they can forge bonds where bonds aren’t expected to be forged. They can also spread fear and prejudice, deliver a threat as precursor to bloodshed. The movie understands these truths as well as a simpler one: When Tom Hanks speaks, you listen. And it synergizes them for a picture that is – in its best, rarest, unfussiest stretches – gently intuitive about the world-changing potential of sharing stories and communication.
And what a time it is, in the context of the movie, to buy into the prospect of communication as unifier. Adapted from Paulette Jiles’s novel of the same name, “News of the World” opens in 1870s north Texas as political tensions continue bubbling five years after Civil War’s end; a dusty air of cataclysm hangs over rugged settlements as Union soldiers look to keep order and tug the state into a post-slavery future. Denizens shuffle through the period of historic transition, apparently too busy to inform themselves of the latest goings-on about the country. That task is happily taken up by Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks); once a captain in the war, he’s now a modest loner who travels from town to town on a modest wagon, collecting newspapers and narrating their contents for anyone who will pay 10 cents to listen in. They’re the sort of community events that feel like fantasy in 2020, unfolding in close confines where folks gather shoulder to shoulder, transitioning with ease from cheers to jeers as Kidd brings news about floods and railroad construction, epidemics and politics. And because it’s Tom Hanks, we listen. Keenly.
“We’re all hurting,” Kidd emphasizes at one tense moment in his pre-newscasting newscasting, and Greengrass’s film, while not reductive, is a smidge too simplistic to wholeheartedly reckon with the underlying truth: In America, some inevitably hurt more than others. For the audience, that truth sprouts organically at the end of a tinderbox year overloaded by news about sickness, polarizing politics and anger that defined our own reality. As with “Da 5 Bloods,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology, “News of the World” is another of-the-times 2020 film which you might be hard-pressed to take on its own terms, although Greengrass isn’t as staunchly motivated by his movie functioning as mirror, at least not to the same fist-in-the-air ends as those aforementioned works are. It’s more subtle in its approach, and by that I mean it’s more raw a product, a movie largely defined by its struggle to compromise urgency with patience, genre convention with genre evolution.
The irony is that “News of the World” begins to feel lopsided when it introduces the catalyst of its humanity, and of Kidd’s. Early on, his lonely company begins to be shared with Johanna (Helena Zengel), a young girl he rescues in the wilderness who has been held hostage for some years by a Native American tribe. She’s long displaced from her home and her identity too, a quiet but keen-eyed child who communicates in an indigenous language and, at least at first, through flashes of a feral nature. Unable to simply hand her off in town, Kidd takes on the burden of transporting her a few hundred miles down the road to south Texas, where her living relatives reside near San Antonio. “That girl needs to be home,” he says, and we don’t feel the pull to interrogate motivations any further because this is Hanks, and Kidd is as utterly Hanksian a character as the “Sully” and “Captain Phillips” actor has been known to play in this stage in his career. That is to say, he’s an avatar of benevolence and capability, someone whose goodwill is as natural as the dusty plains and jagged mountains jutting up in the distance. Our familiarity with Hanks allows us an avenue to invest in this relationship early.
But it may also rob “News of the World” of a need to interrogate itself. As Kidd and Johanna head off on the trail – toward dangers both human and environmental – the film waxes and wanes between its two functions as elongated escort mission and social parable, providing only a few scenes of real thematic synergy. These storytelling tensions are perhaps to be expected from Greengrass, whose filmography is defined by attempts to compromise the insightful with the thrilling – “22 July,” “Captain Phillips” and “United 93” – to various ends of success.
He stamps his works with a trademark viscerality, too, and we can spot that indulgence in parts “News of the World,” most notably during an extended chase/mountainside hunt sequence so drawn out that we begin to suspect Kidd and Johanna’s escape may hold consequences down the line. Perhaps the blood they shed has roots nearer to San Antonio.
That doesn’t come to be the case. Instead, a conventional shootout’s inclusion (every Western must have one, I suppose) leads us to wonder if quieter moments couldn’t have become fertile ground for a more focused film. In these scraps of movie, Greengrass and fellow screenwriter Luke Davies thread ideas about the necessity of subjective truth through the needle of the story’s central budding friendship; Kidd and Johanna begin to pick away at the language barrier separating them with a word here, a term there, an easy camaraderie all around. Hanks ably sells Kidd’s patience – as does the open road ahead of them – but it’s the young Zengel’s mostly mute performance that is the more captivating of the two, even as the screenplay gives her own background and eventual (lack of) growth short thrift.
They’re simple scenes of simple design, moments of burrowing emotional depth that beg to be more than a fleeting moment. In fact, they function more effectively as thematic counterweight to the crude authoritative systems propagated at another town the duo visits, where white men are eager to assert control over black bodies by encouraging Hanks to read from their own newspapers. Only these are filled with rhetoric of hate and violence (you can call it “fake news,” and the movie may be urging you too). Because a Hanks character is less likely to take on a passive antagonistic role than he is to submit to his fate while stranded on an island, it is no spoiler to say that Kidd refuses. “News of the World” beckons us to cheer at what happens next, as well as to shed a tear once Kidd’s eventual ultimatum arrives, but I wish it did more to shape the psychology of its protagonists. Johanna is impacted much more than the movie allows her to impact, while Kidd is a figure both of apiece with and contradictory to the land he travels across. That’s an interesting flourish, but one that Greengrass and Davis don’t expand on so as to fill the gorgeously photographed landscapes with the depths of his personality. In effect, they don’t quite make Kidd fully worthy of the man playing him.
"News of the World" is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language. It releases in theaters Christmas Day.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Tom Astor, Elizabeth Marvel
Directed by Paul Greengrass
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