“News of the World” is a benign western that brings together “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass with actor Tom Hanks. Here, Hanks plays another captain, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran first seen exercising his craft – reading the news to city dwellers for money – in Wichita Falls, North Texas, 1870.
Kidd travels from city to city telling stories from newspapers to help people escape their problems. He is a newscaster as an actor, and sometimes he plays the part of a comedian, making people laugh at the absurdity in the distant world. What he is not a charlatan. What is a shame; it would be interesting to see some ambiguity or even an agenda with Kidd’s work. (The film briefly discusses politics when it talks about President Grant, who is booed by some aggressive Texans).
There is not a cynical bone in Kidd’s tight body. He may have both physical and emotional scars, but Kidd has integrity and nobility. Hanks, who is the Jimmy Stewart of this generation, is nothing if not honored on paper. And the actor’s characteristic courage is what makes his performance persuasive, but also exhausting.
Kidd’s morality is the reason he responds with compassion when he meets Johanna (Helena Zengel), a Kiowa orphaned preteen on her way to Wichita Falls. He plans to hand it over to the authorities, however, upon arrival, he is informed that the agent he needs to see is absent for three months. Young Kidd decides to take the risky 400-mile journey to Castroville to return Johanna to her aunt and her own uncle.
“News of the World” therefore becomes an adventure with an older, gray-haired man and an incommunicable child. (See “The Midnight Sky”, released on Netflix this week, as another example of this genre – or better yet, don’t do that.) Kidd speaks to the indifferent Johanna and he may well be talking to Wilson, the volleyball of “Cast Away.” And suspend disbelief while Johanna apparently understands everything Kidd says to her during the film’s action sequences.
Predictably, the duo finds all the basic genres of the road movie genre, from problems with wagons (“cars”) and setbacks to narrow escapes from danger. The best episode is actually one of the first. Villain Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) wants to buy Johanna, which, of course, is not for sale. Chases and shootings follow, and Greengrass shows his traces of predefined action in this exciting sequence. Situated in a rocky and mountainous region, Kidd and Johanna are situated above Almay and his men, which gives them an advantage – to some extent. Greengrass wisely avoids using music during the climax of this duel, which adds to the tension.
If only the rest of “News of the World” were so attractive. The script, written by Greengrass and Luke Davies (“Lion”), and based on the novel by Paulette Giles, looks lazy and uninspired. Kidd and Johanna are haunted by pasts that become clear in “poignant” scenes that reveal their despair. Kidd evens talks about “moving on” and “leaving the past behind” and advises: “Don’t look back”, which can reveal your character’s mentality, but also ensures that he will face his demons before the credits roll. Unfortunately, the film never generates the emotional resonance in the “closing” scenes it should.
One reason for the lack of feeling in the film is that much of what happens is wired. In Erath County, Kidd confronts Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who can also be renamed Trump. He wants Kidd to read only the newspaper he published and edited. He recounts how Farley is a great man and uses illustrations to show how evil and dangerous Mexicans and Native Americans are. What should a decent, educated man like Kidd do? Tell a compelling story about men who fought and urged the masses into action. The trick works for a spell, but soon Farley has a gun to Kidd’s head. There are no surprises about how he is freed from this near-fatal situation. Greengrass shows the audience exactly who is protecting Kidd. The action may not be as important as the message – that people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity – but that message is pushed to viewers.
“News of the World” is so relentlessly old-fashioned that the characters may well be wearing white or black hats to indicate who is good or bad. And it is good that Greengrass wanted to make a throwback to the westerns of yesteryear – the panoramic views are beautiful – but his film does not have much impact for contemporary viewers. The lack of bloody violence makes family meals appropriate, but it is difficult to imagine many children sitting on this pablum. Even the messages of feminine power seem as dumb as Johanna. That said, Zengel is an expressive artist. Her frustration at being forced to wear a dress is a pleasant and revealing scene.
One of the most important moments of the film presents the impressionable John Calley (Fred Hechinger), who briefly gets a ride with Kidd and Johanna on his way out of a city. John wants to know the end of a news story that Kidd was telling and that fascinated him the night before. This exchange indicates the importance of reading, but the film does not make much of this point about education. Instead, it emphasizes the value of stories and memories. And that is why “News of the World” is ultimately unsatisfactory. It favors seriousness and feeling over genuine knowledge or feeling.
The story here is not new, and only moderately interesting.
“News of the World” opens theatrically on Christmas Day.