In the 30+ years of Paul Greengrass’ directorial career, he’s basically done two types of movies – action films (particularly the Jason Bourne series) and 21st century geopolitical intrigue (United 93, Green Zone, etc). Now, with his latest film, News of the World, he’s beginning a third motif – Tom Hanks rescue films. It started with Captain Phillips back in 2013, and it continues now. Arguably, News of the World is also his most straightforward and traditional film, as from a plot perspective it’s a by-the-numbers Western, but there’s still a great deal of entertainment in the story, as well as some decent technical elements and creative choices that elevate it just above standard issue.
Based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former pastor and Confederate soldier living in Reconstruction Texas. Leaving the church after the death of his wife while he was away at war, Kidd now spends his days traveling from town to town reading newspapers to the locals for a dime each (it’s a little bit on the nose that Greengrass and Luke Davies’ screenplay has Kidd lead with a story of deaths during an epidemic, seeing as Hanks and Rita Wilson both caught COVID last year), a sort of melding of a stage show and the beginnings of broadcast journalism. While heading to his next stop, he finds a ransacked wagon and a blonde girl dressed in native garb. Finding her papers among the wreckage, he learns that her name is Johanna, and that she was kidnapped and adopted by Kiowa Indians who had killed her family in the hill regions. After the occupying Union Army is unable to help, Kidd takes it upon himself to transport Johanna across the state to her only living relatives.
Johanna is played by German child actress Helena Zengel, and her performance has gotten a bit of attention during Awards Season, to the point that she very likely will be nominated for Supporting Actress. The first half of the film almost makes her feel like an origin story for Stands with a Fist from Dances With Wolves, in that she’s a white girl who was taken in by natives and raised as one of their own after her family was murdered. She also has her hair cut, a traditional symbol of mourning. At first her performance boils down to a series of grunts and screams, essentially making her either the next Dakota Fanning or any professional tennis player. But once the plot gains momentum, her performance does become quite endearing.
At the bare minimum, it’s a well made casting choice. Just as the previously unknown Barkhad Abdi gave Captain Phillips an otherworldly feel, so too does casting Zengel, a young actress unknown in the States for whom English is not her first language. It allows for legitimate reactions displaying the communications gap between the two leads whenever one talks, whether it’s Hanks in English or Zengel in German or Kiowa, and it grants credibility to their bonding as characters as they become more used to one another. The eventual affection and codependency is fairly standard for a movie like this, but bringing in Zengel as a completely foreign element definitely adds to the verisimilitude.
There are a couple other strong technical elements over the course of the film. James Newton Howard gives a predictable, yet sweeping score to the proceedings. You can 100% pinpoint where a flourish will come in, but that doesn’t make it any less grand and satisfying to hear it. There’s also some fairly strong cinematography, including a great transition shot that adjusts the lighting on the fly to speed up a sunrise. Maybe that falls under editing as well, but it was nonetheless impressive. And almost by default in films like these, the desert vistas are truly spectacular.
From a story perspective, though, the most refreshing thing was that each threat to Kidd and Johanna’s survival is a passing one. It’s become a trope for there to be some lingering villain who pops back up several times over the course of the film whenever their evil deeds are foiled, even when logic dictates – from both a human and plot perspective – that they don’t persist. Thankfully, this film dispenses with that nonsense. When Michael Covino shows up as the rapacious Almay with two lackeys trying to buy Johanna for what can only be inferred as pedophilia, Kidd gets her out of town and they pursue. In most other films, Almay would be the core villain and this would be the start of an ongoing chase despite whatever temporary setbacks he faces. Instead, there’s one confrontation, and through some ingenuity on our heroes’ parts, his menace is handled permanently in one go. This of course leads to there being multiple antagonists over the course of the film, in varying degrees of silliness and appropriateness, but on balance it’s a net positive.
As a Reconstruction era town crier, Hanks’ character is compelling, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Hell, I had to resist the temptation several times to yell out, “THERE’S A SNAKE IN MY BOOTS!” every time he stood up to give his performances. Again, though, he’s Tom fucking Hanks. There’s no such thing as him doing a bad job. He’s as charming as ever, and it’s a credit to both his skills as an actor and the quality of the screenplay as to whether he’ll become a de facto parent to Johanna or sacrifice himself for her sake. There’s nothing new under the sun, so any level of suspense is welcome.
There’s an awful lot in this movie that will feel familiar to fans of the genre. From True Grit to Shane to The Searchers, there are elements and homages to some of the greatest Westerns in cinema history. Some may dismiss this as being derivative, and I can’t say I blame anyone who thinks that way. But because I was entertained, I was able to enjoy the references rather than scoff at them. And like a said, with the casting of Helena Zengel and the subversive way in which villain characters are portrayed are original enough elements to distinguish this as more than just another Western. Is it grand prestige fare? Not really. But is it enjoyable? Absolutely.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Western? Would you watch the news more often if the anchor was more like a carnival barker? Let me know!