“News of the World” Movie Review


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     Director Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World” is a sharp departure from his previous work.  All but abandoning the hyperkinetic shaky cam action sequences he has built his career on with films such as the final three chapters of the “Jason Bourne” series (2004, 2007, 2016), as well as “Green Zone” (2010) and “Captain Phillips” (2013), in favor of a traditional Western focused on characters whose journey is slow and methodical.  A testament of the time period, but also with the clear intent to tell a story driven by character dialogue rather than explosive set pieces.  The result is certain to be relished by purists of the genre.

     Working from a script by “Lion” (2016) scribe Luke Davies, adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles, the story follows newsman Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) in the year 1870 (five years after the end of the Civil War), as he makes his post war living traveling from town to town reading the news in front of small information hungry live audiences.  Changes within the United States are plentiful, and the town’s folk he regularly encounters in the state of Texas are often displeased with the direction the federal government is going after the sound defeat of the Confederate Army.  He’s the kind of man whose job could use the modern day quip “Don’t kill the messenger.”, but since that phrase had yet to be said, he instead brings forth ice breaker quality humor to illicit laughs from the occasionally hostile crowds.

     It is during Kidd’s travels that he comes across a 10 year old girl, who he discovers had lost her parents years before and has since been raised by Native Americans known as the Kiowa people.  Referred to as Johanna (Helena Zengel) by Kidd, she does not speak English and is forced to communicate with hand signs when it is apparent her native language is not understood.  When Kidd attempts to turn Johanna over to the military, he is told it is now his responsibility to return her to the only living kin on record, requiring a lengthy journey across treacherous and often dangerous terrain to the purported location of her Aunt and Uncle.

     What Greengrass has concocted here is essentially a Western set road movie, as Kidd and Johanna forge a unique relationship while en route to a place she clearly does not want to go.  It’s also clear, at least initially, that Kidd wants to accomplish the task at hand expeditiously  and return to his wife in San Antonio, a motivating factor in the manner in which he looks to complete the mission.  And so they go, equipped with two horses and a run down stage coach, on a trip through the dusty plains of Texas.  An unforgiving landscape fraught with hidden threats who seem to be dug in and waiting for unsuspecting travelers unaware of their nefarious intentions.  A war veteran himself, Kidd seems mentally prepared, but can he protect Johanna and reach their destination unscathed?  Does Johanna want to live with a new family of whom she has never met?

     When you think of other recent Hanks performances, including the aforementioned “Captain Phillips” and 2020’s “Greyhound”, we see a very similar mild mannered, yet confident man whose experience guides him through a series of unthinkable obstacles.  His Captain Jefferson Kidd is cut from the same clothe, but the absence of dependable action set pieces means Hanks must provide one of his most nuanced performances.  Particularly given he is the only person actually speaking on screen for most of the film, while Greengrass commits from the outset to be restrained from utilizing the kind of high octane camera work and editing that has defined his style.  And though Kidd is through and through a prototypical Hanks character, if the director’s name wasn’t on the poster, I wouldn’t have recognized this as his work.

     “News of the World” is nonetheless a masterful piece of filmmaking.  And it won’t take a viewer long to realize much of the post war political climate depicted in 1870s Texas is quite relevant today.  Whether people receive their news from a traveling newsman as they did then or in the 24/7 always in your face manner in which we do now, the simple reporting of a decision made by the government will always cause some level of divide, regardless of what part of the country you call home.  

     Even a chance encounter with a business tycoon in a small Texas locale, boasting a news publication controlled by the same person who also owns and runs the town brings an interesting parallel to today’s bias news reporting where what channel you watch will determine what side of the aisle you currently reside.  While Kidd wanted to read something significantly more honest and dependable to the town’s people, the tycoon insisted he read instead his publication plastered with his image and the narrative he wants the people to hear.  His version of the truth, what ever that happens to be.  A stark reminder of the media’s power to persuade and how far the people behind the curtain will go to shape the mindset of the masses in an effort to stop us from thinking for ourselves.  You see a film like this and immediately begin to wonder what ever happened to the people who simply reported the news?  GRADE: B+