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'News of the World' Review: Too many old sources, not enough new insights

In 'News of the World,' Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass reunite for a tour of the Old West that offers too few new ideas.

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel star in Paul Greengrass' 'News of the World'.
(Image: © Universal)

Our Verdict

Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks tell a story that is overpoweringly familiar and lacks the freshness and energy they brought to 'Captain Phillips'.

For

  • 📰 Hanks is terrific as the Civil War veteran whose heart begins to reopen after reluctantly agreeing to rescue this troubled girl.
  • 📰 Zengel gives a great performance as the confused girl who teaches him how to communicate even when the two of them don't share a language.

Against

  • 📰 Greengrass' typical verve behind the camera feels neutered in a genre he's never explored, but too many others have.
  • 📰 The movie is a missed opportunity to breathe life into Westerns, or use their language to talk about contemporary ideas.

News of the World is currently only available to watch in theaters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend checking it out at your local drive-in. If one isn’t available, please be sure to check out state and CDC guidelines before watching in an enclosed space.

Directed and cowritten by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, News of the World feels like it should have more to say — or if it does, should say it better. As good as Hanks always is, there are no moments of transcendent acting like in their last collaboration Captain Phillips, and Greengrass’ story adheres too faithfully to a template that was set back in 1956 with The Searchers, ostensibly about innocents but focused on the white men who shepherd them through an unforgiving landscape. An adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name, News of the World rehashes well-worn truths about the Old West with some tenuous current-day parallels and some full on cinematic cliches, hoping that solid performances and the filmmaker’s visceral sensibility will elevate it from familiar to sublime.

Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who makes a living going from town to town reading newspaper clippings for illiterate hayseeds at ten cents per seat. When Kidd discovers an orphaned girl (Helena Zengel) hiding in the woods on the outskirts of Wichita Falls, he brings her to a nearby Union Army encampment so the soldiers can reunite her with family. Instead, they task Kidd with delivering her to Castroville, Texas, a few hundred miles away; unfortunately, she speaks no English, and has instead acclimated to Kiowa culture, believing she is one of them. Connecting with hotel owner Ella Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel), who speaks Kiowa, Kidd begins to learn about the girl, who he names Johanna based on adoption papers scattered where he first found her. But not long after he takes Johanna into his care, a man named Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) approaches him with an offer to purchase her for nefarious purposes.

Although Union soldiers temporarily intervene, a chase ensues into the wilderness, leading to a standoff where Kidd discovers that Johanna is helpful, even if she doesn’t understand what he’s saying, and vice versa. But as they make their way across Texas to deposit her at her relatives — who may not even know the girl — Kidd begins to grow attached to Johanna, wondering if delivering her to this distant family is what’s best for her, and just as importantly, for himself, a man fleeing his own tragedies and without a companion to care for.

Since Paul Greengrass broke through to American audiences with the second and third installments in the Bourne franchise (and returned for Jason Bourne in 2016), his films have frequently tapped into current events (United 93, Captain Phillips) or existential fears based on them (Green Zone). Consequently I think it’s fair to look at this book adaptation at least in part as a tableau for him to explore ideas that are percolating in the current world, even though it’s set in 1870s Texas; and although he touches on some relatable ideas about greedy bosses (or even demagogues) around every corner, manipulating their supporters with “fake news,” or in lieu of that, bully tactics, little of that proves meaningful or deep in the greater context of the story. And so the audience ends up watching a travelogue where America was violent and divided after the Civil War, and Kidd and his charge move from one location to the next to face a different iteration of that existential menace. 

For example, the designs that Almay and his men have in mind for Johanna are both obvious and a little bit baffling, especially since (as far as we know) they spot her for the first time during one of Kidd’s news presentations and summarily decide that they must own her. From there, they encounter Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who demands that Kidd read his own hagiography instead of the regular news under threat of killing them both. And finally, their path runs parallel to a group of Kiowa Indians known (fairly or not) for brutalizing anyone who enters their territory. Every other scene features a cautious advance into underbrush where danger could be lurking just around the corner, and the adventure of escaping it is neither original or staged excitingly enough to feel fresh after a good hundred-plus years of Western movies.

Hanks is unsurprisingly compelling as a man who shares good and bad news as penance for the atrocities he committed during the Civil War, and at the expense of a marriage and an ordinary life he left behind. But “old man looking back at the bad things he did” was done multiple times decades ago in Westerns and elsewhere, and Greengrass’ script doesn’t give him anything new or different to work through as Kidd begins to regain his humanity via caring for this headstrong young girl. Zengel is excellent as Johanna, but this story only avoids being a white savior narrative by a matter of degrees, and the idea of a scrappy orphan warming a bitter man’s heart is, again, a trope that audiences have seen a lot before.

So the questions become, what is this movie trying to say? What is it about, if it’s not just about what happens to these characters? A third-act epiphany gives dimensionality to Kidd’s choices, combining the notion that what seems best is not always the right thing and the idea that family is not always defined by the people with whom we share actual blood. But Greengrass and Hanks both are far too talented to deliver a story like this that just kind of simmers on the surface without plumbing anything deeper. Or to borrow from Kidd’s style of reporting the news, perhaps there’s information below the fold that’s getting lost because there’s too much focus on the headlines. Either way, News of the World feels like a story that’s been reported on too many times, with too few new details. Greengrass and Hanks do great work — both on their own and together — but this time, that shared byline just isn’t enough.

News of the World will be available in theaters December 25th, 2020.