When divorced from the charged docudramas and caffeinated capers of a certain amnesiac assassin that have sculpted the career of director Paul Greengrass, his latest, News of the World, already passes muster: a lively, capably produced and oftentimes contemplative Western with two terrific performances and a message that cuts through the contemporary blues. Yet there is more to it than that. Add to News’s greater success a willingness to lift a page from Greengrass’s entries in the Bourne franchise (sans memory loss) and its lead in Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, in its examination of regrettably scarred but emotionally intelligent men who open the eyes of those around them as they skirt the very circumstances that divide opinions.
This Texas-set adaptation of a 2016 Paulette Jiles novel of the same name follows former Confederate Infantry Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks, reunited with the English filmmaker after 2013’s Captain Phillips) several years after the conclusion of the Civil War. Kidd, who has made his living journeying from town to town reading newspapers to the people for a small fee, is one day confronted along the road by a wagon in disrepair and the horrific scene of a lynched black man nearby. While combing the area, he discovers a young Kiowa-speaking girl by the name of Johanna (Helena Zengel,) who had been kidnapped by and living with Native Americans after much of her family was killed years earlier. Made aware that the girl has surviving relatives across the state, Kidd is inclined to see that she gets there. Soon hitting a dead end with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, Kidd takes on the task of returning Johanna to her family. The pair travel the Texas plains, with Captain Kidd recounting the news on occasion and the two facing numerous obstacles along the way.
Hanks creates a superb vehicle for audience investment from the first shot to the last, delivering a lived-in, prayerful performance that calls on his trademark wistful eyes to establish Kidd as a gentle soul haunted by mistakes and misfortune in his past but unflaggingly assured of the agency and decency of his fellow man. Perhaps owed to the genre, the captain’s development throughout the film may inspire comparisons to Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in his own Unforgiven or Christian Bale’s prejudicial Army Captain Joseph Blocker in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles. The bond that News of the World centers around, certain choreography within the film and the graces of its script work in earnest to dispel these, however, affording the seasoned actor a presence all his own.
The 12-year-old Zengel is excellent, at times making for a spirited foil to Hanks, finding a moment or two of levity as they find themselves on opposite ends of a culture divide and on other occasions going along for the ride as Johanna lives and dies on the motives of this newfound father figure. The screenplay by Greengrass and Luke Davies allows for the blossoming of a chemistry founded on empathy and intellect (one sequence involving the contents of shotgun shells resonates,) and one that never feels forced. As one of the script’s greatest strengths, it simultaneously offers Zengel an authentic humanity that gives the performance marked staying power.
News of the World further brings along several gems in supporting roles from the likes of Elizabeth Marvel as an authoritative yet charitable Kiowa-speaking innkeeper and Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham as a couple who are past friends of Kidd’s and serve as temporary caretakers for Johanna. Greengrass’s film also harbors some daring and engaging setpieces (if slightly misrepresented by trailers,) with a seize-the-high-ground gun battle making terrific use of verticality in staging and sound design and an immersive dust storm late in the picture drawing a literal and figurative divide between the leads. The filmmaker’s direction on the whole mostly sidesteps the jittery camerawork of his past works as he insists on shots that linger, be they on a vast expanse, polite conversation or the look on one’s face. Veteran composer James Newton Howard provides a suitably rural musical score that accentuates News’s emotional beats, its rugged landscapes (captured with majesty by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) and the toils of the populace at this stage in history.
The chief misstep of this Western, though not a particularly egregious one, comes near its midway mark as the duo crosses into a territory more sinister in its administration, with a talon’s grasp on information on account of a despot’s oversight. While no less polished than the rest of the film, with some striking and detail-oriented production design on display, Kidd’s appeal to the oppressed here comes across a bit heavy-handed. This attempt to parallel real-world struggles with misinformation tends to stick out like a sore thumb when News’s late-1800’s setting and adjacent subtext already register, particularly when the camera lingers as it does on the visceral, human response by the crowds to Kidd’s readings along his travels.
A sanguine Western road film anchored by an outstanding turn from Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass’s sound direction, News of the World is a breath of fresh air in 2021 and a sturdy reiteration of the merits of an oft-misunderstood genre.
Andres Arias, born and raised in Miami, is currently majoring in journalism and pursuing a film studies certificate. He is interested in pop culture and consumer technology and aspires to contribute to the body of public opinion as a critic.