‘News of the World’ Review: Tom Hanks Does the Strong, Silent Type
Nowadays, if you want to pick a selection of news from different publications, you can use a mobile app. But if you lived in Texas in 1870, you could pay a dime to see Tom Hanks shuffling through a pile of newspapers reading selected articles. It seems like a lot better business.
In News of the World, a humble, solid western directed by Paul Greengrass based on the Paulette Jiles novel, Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War, who locates a post-Bellum as an analog news aggregator . Kidd, who fought on the Confederate side, travels from place to place offering a mixture of distraction and information. He promises threads that will distract his audience from their own problems, despite reports of an outbreak of meningitis, a fire in a coal mine, and a ferry accident.
That everything can be considered entertainment in view of the gloomy situation on site. Five years after the war ended, much of Texas is in a state of simmering hostility. Union soldiers patrol the cities and streets, causing resentment from white people who are unwilling to rejoin the United States. Kidd stumbles upon the aftermath of a lynching and hears frequent reports of violence against Indians and Mexicans. As is customary in the West, this bloodshed is part of the background of the film rather than its open topic. The title is a bit misleading; The story is intimate and specific, making sure to suppress any political implications that might make viewers uncomfortable.
Kidd is a variation on a well-known Western archetype – a wandering soul who has seen and done terrible things and whose caution towards other people cannot obscure its fundamental decency. The first thing we see of the man are the battle scars on his torso, and before we heard much about him, we understood that he caused and endured suffering. We know he’s a good guy, even if we don’t hear much about the lost cause he fought for – not an uncommon choice in a western, but one that has outlived its adequacy. Since this is Tom Hanks, kindness is the dominant note, and the drama arises less from the character’s internal ethical struggle than from the external challenges he faces in his quest for right action.
These challenges include various bad guys, issues with the car, rough terrain, and bad weather. Kidd attacks all of this and more on his journey, accompanied by a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel). Johanna, the child of German farmers, was kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa tribe and is now orphaned twice. After a series of other accidents, Kidd takes on handing the girl, who does not speak English, to an aunt and uncle in Castroville, far away in the hill country.
In its bones, “News of the World” is a B-Western, slim and linear, whose substitute story is decorated with efficient set pieces. Greengrass, one of the most inventive and rigorous action directors at work – his chapters in the Jason Bourne franchise are unsurpassed for speed and spatial coherence – pays tribute to the genre tradition rather than trying to reinvent it. When Kidd and Johanna are chased down a treacherous ridge by some nasty outlaws, the subsequent shooting is a step backwards and a masterclass, as tight and mean and exciting as something in an old Budd Boetticher film.
Other pleasures include good supporting cast (including Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon and Bill Camp) and the relationship between Hanks and Zengel, an impressively controlled young actor who rejects any temptation to be cuteness. None of the actors exaggerates the sympathy that develops between Kidd and Johanna, and the film is delicate without descending too far into sentimentality.
But it can also feel a little soft and puffed up. Too much true sand was shaved off, too many hard truths of history nodded and turned away. James Newton Howard’s score is obtrusively important and contributes to the fact that the scale is not quite right. This is not a bad movie. The problem is that it’s too beautiful a film, too cautious and compromised, as if its makers don’t trust the audience to process the real world news.
News from all over the world
Rated PG-13. Handle violence discreetly. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. In theaters. Please read the Policies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching films in theaters.