“News of the World” is a benign western that reunites “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass with actor Tom Hanks. Here, Hanks plays another captain, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who was first seen on his trade – reading the news to townspeople for money – in Wichita Falls, North Texas, 1870.
Kidd travels from city to city and tells stories from the newspapers to help people escape their problems. He is a newscaster as a performer, and at times he plays a comedian and makes people laugh at the absurdity of the distant world. What he is not is a charlatan. Which is a shame; it would be interesting to see ambiguity or even an agenda with Kidds work. (The film comes briefly into politics when he reports on President Grant being bowed down by some feisty Texans).
There’s not a cynical bone in Kidd’s fair body. He may be both physically and emotionally scarred, but Kidd has integrity and nobility. Hanks, who is this generation’s Jimmy Stewart, is nothing, if not honorable in the role. And the actor’s trademark disorder is what makes his performance compelling but also exhausting.
Kidd’s morale is the reason he reacts with compassion when he meets Johanna (Helena Zengel), an orphaned Kiowa teenager, on her way out of Wichita Falls. He plans to hand her over to the authorities, but on arrival he is told that the agent he is to see is gone for three months. The principled Kidd decides to take the risky journey of 400 kilometers to Castroville to return Johanna to his aunt and uncle himself.
“News from the World” therefore becomes an adventure with a grizzled older man and a young communication child. (Watch “The Midnight Sky,” released on Netflix this week, as another example of this genre – or better yet, do not.) Kidd talks to the unresponsive Johanna, and he might as well talk to Wilson the volleyball from “Cast Away.” And expose disbelief as Johanna apparently understands everything Kidd tells her during the film’s action sequences.
Predictably, the couple encounters all road movie genre staples, from wagon (“car”) problems and setbacks to narrow escapes from danger. The best episode is actually one of the earliest. The villainous Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) wants to buy Johanna, who of course is not for sale. A hunt and shootout will soon follow, and Greengrass shows off his action-packed set of chops in this exciting sequence. Kidd and Johanna lie in a rocky hilly region above Almay and his men, giving them an advantage – up to a point. Greengrass wisely avoids using music during this tense duel.
If only the rest of “News of the World” was as compelling. The script, written by Greengrass and Luke Davies (“Lion”), and based on the novel by Paulette Giles, feels lazy and uninspired. Kidd and Johanna are both haunted by the past, which becomes apparent in “gripping” scenes that reveal their despair. Kidd evens talks about “moving forward” and “putting the past behind you” and advises “Don’t look back”, which may reveal his character’s mindset, but it also guarantees that he will confront his demons before the credits roll. Alas, the film never quite creates the emotional resonance in the “closing” scenes that it was supposed to.
One of the reasons for the film’s lack of feeling is that too much of what’s happening is telegraphed. In Erath County, Kidd confronts Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who might as well be renamed Trump. He wants Kidd to read only the newspaper he published and edited. It reports on what a great man Farley is, and uses illustrations to show how bad and dangerous Mexicans and Indians are. What is a decent, well-educated man like Kidd to do? Tell a captivating story about men who fought back and awakened the masses to action. The trick works like a spell, but soon Farley has a gun to Kidd’s head. There are no surprises in how he is freed from this almost fatal situation. Greengrass shows the audience exactly who has Kidd’s back. The action may not be as important as the message – that people deserved to be treated with respect and dignity – but that message is thrown to the viewers.
“News of the World” is so relentlessly old-fashioned that the characters might as well wear white or black hats to indicate who is good and bad. And it’s fine that Greengrass wanted to give a return to Western times – the view of widescreen is beautiful – but his films do not have much influence on contemporary viewers. The lack of bloody violence makes it an appropriate family prize, but it is hard to imagine many children sitting through this pablum. Even the girl’s power messages feel as subdued as Johanna. That said, Zengel is an expressive artist. Her frustrations at being forced to wear a dress is a lovely, revealing scene.
One of the film’s most valuable moments includes the impressive John Calley (Fred Hechinger), who shortly gets a ride with Kidd and Johanna on their way out of town. John wants to know the end of a news story that Kidd told that got him spellbound the night before. This exchange indicates the importance of reading, but the film does not play this point about education too much up. Instead, it emphasizes the value of stories and memories. And that’s why ‘News of the World’ is ultimately unsatisfactory. It favors seriousness and emotion at the expense of genuine knowledge or emotion.
The story here is nothing new and only moderately interesting.
“News of the World” opens theatrical Christmas Day.