A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2021

NEWS OF THE WORLD jjj

2020, PG-13, 118 mins.

Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd  /  Helena Zengel as Johanna Leonberger  /  Thomas Francis Murphy as Merritt Farley  /  Elizabeth Marvel as Gannett  /  Mare Winningham as Jane  /  Neil Sandilands as Wilhelm Leonberger  /  Chukwudi Iwuji as Charles Edgefield

Directed by Paul Greengrass  /  Written by Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles

The very thought of Paul Greengrass shaking his career up by making a period western - and with his CAPTAIN PHILLIPS star in Tom Hanks no less (in his very first western of his career, almost impossible to believe) is beyond intriguing.  

Coming after huge critical and audience successes like the last two entries in the original JASON BOURNE trilogy (let's forget about that fifth entry from a few years ago) alongside making some of the best films of their respective years in UNITED 93 and GREEN ZONE, Greengrass was due to dip his toes into other genre waters, with NEWS OF THE WORLD being the follow-through.  No stranger to helming searing dramas with historical undertones, it's a real treat to see the acclaimed English filmmaker tackle something like this, even though (in somewhat disappointing fashion), this is arguably his most stylistically reserved and straightforwardly made film on his resume, and one that doesn't stray too much from well worn and explored western archetypes.  But NEWS OF THE WORLD is still handsomely produced, gorgeously shot, and features Hanks at his most reliably stalwart. 

If the core concept for the story here feels like it has been lifted from other past westerns, then you're certainly not alone.  NEWS OF THE WORLD follows a fairly routine storyline of a stern faced war veteran who finds himself returning a young girl that was taken from her family by Native Americans...and they become close during their journeys, with the stone cold ex-military man becomes a surrogate father figure in the process.  The premise here feels like storytelling terrain already covered, but Greengrass and screenwriter Luke Davies (adapting Paulette Jiles novel of the same name) manages to somehow make the material work despite its contrived and predictable nature.  Set in post Civil War American in 1870, the film opens by introducing us Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a former army man that fought in the war that now travels from town to town across America to read national news to any locals that will listen (think of it as a very, very slow kind of viral reporting).  During one of his routine trips he encounters a 10-year-old wild kid named Johanna (Helena Zengel, a remarkable new find), who several years earlier was kidnapped by the Kiowa, during which time her parents were killed in the raid.  All Kidd wants to do is, well, his job, and having a vulnerable and all alone child added on to his burdens makes his work all the more difficult to carry out. 

 

 

Moving quickly, Kidd tries to pass her off to the very first officials in town that he thinks will take her, but that proves to be a failure.  When he becomes clear that no one seems willing or able to take poor Johanna on, Kidd decides to pull up his boot straps and take her to her nearest living relatives, which happens to be her biological aunt and uncle.  Of course, their long journey becomes a difficult one on multiple levels, stemming from Kidd's inability (initially, at least) to communicate with Johanna (who can't speak English, only her acquired Native tongue) and her intense need to break free of Kidd and re-join back up with her adopted Kiowa family.  She constantly feels like she's being held prisoner against her will by the noble mind Kidd, something that he desperately tries to convince her is not the case.  Complicating their travels even more are some rough and rugged backwards minded outlaws that they come across during Kidd's news reporting gig (most of which don't take kindly to any news of the Yankee north being delivered to them), with some of them wanting to nab and take Johanna for their own nefarious purposes.  Throughout these hellish ordeals, Kidd and Johanna - born out of survival necessity - begin to bond.

The core concept behind NEWS OF THE WORLD is compelling enough, especially for the way it shows Kidd navigating his way through some very sore and bitter southern states to deliver the national news to them that are frankly still angry about losing the war and giving up their way of life.  Kidd's occupational goals are beyond admirable, and he tries to be the calm spoken and pragmatic man of reason in sharing up-to-date current events from the country at large, but often to very hostile crowds.  And he does so for very meager pay and without much respect being dished out from his audience.  I'm guessing that the film is aiming for some sort of timely relevance here when it comes to how some in America - then as some still do now - are quick to label headlines as "fake news" when it doesn't fit into their tunnel visioned narrative and worldview.  One subplot involves Kidd heading into one desolate town headed up by a megalomaniac leader (Thomas Francis Murphy) that insists that Kidd only reads his propaganda lies instead of the actual news.  Does any of this sound remotely familiar?   I appreciated NEWS OF THE WORLD trying to be about something beyond its main narrative, and its commentary about the dangers of misinformation during a time of fragility for a fractured nation are decent enough, but the execution here by Greengrass and company come off as a bit force fed and painfully obvious at times. 

What we're essentially left with is the core relationship dynamic between Kidd and Johanna, and even though it traverses down a highly preordained path that any audience member can see from a mile away, it nevertheless gives NEWS OF THE WORLD a sense of dramatic urgency.  A majority of the plot involves the very slow and gradual thawing of tensions between Kidd and Johanna, with the former realizing the sheer scope of his responsibilities to her and the latter growing more tolerant and understanding that this man does mean well by her.  I also liked how the characters are presented, like Johanna being a mile removed from a precocious or cute kid stereotype in desperate need of being saved; she's very physically and mentally strong for having gone through the absolute ringer in life, something that Kidd gradually grows to comprehend.  And witnessing Kidd segue from a reluctant caregiver to something more paternal is the emotional core of the film.  The two lead performances here help cement this dramatic authenticity, with Berlin actress Zengel doing small wonders with a largely non-verbal (well, English at least) role requires her to communicate so much by saying so very little.  She's a marvelous standout and more than holds her own next to her industry vet co-star in Hanks, who's probably incapable of giving a bad performance at this stage in his career.  At a ripe 64-years-old, it's great to see Hanks owning up to and playing parts that are high on mileage and world weariness.  Kidd is by no means a stretch performance for the two-time Oscar winner (a soft spokenly determined, but reluctant hero of decency), but he's so damn good at playing this roles that it's really hard to find fault in them. 

Moving over to Greengrass, though, and it's here where some of his fans may be set up for minor dissatisfaction.  Those expecting his trademark hyper kinetic, you-are-there single hand held camera style will be let down, as Greengrass settles in for a much more casual, laid back, and some could aptly argue "old fashioned" look at feel to the production (even part of me is still grappling with whether or not this is a good or bad thing).  That's not to say that NEWS OF THE WORLD isn't atmospheric or finely crafted.  The vastly beautiful panoramic vistas provided by cinematography Darius Wolski really make the varied and well traveled environments here pop with strikingly moody palette, and Greengrass himself does manage to craft a few harrowing action sequences that stand out.  One involves a very intense and well choreographed stand-off between Kidd and Johanna fending off their ravenous pursuers that ends in spectacular fashion.  Another stellar moment involves the pair trying to navigate through an oppressively dangerous wind/sand storm that threatens to separate themselves indefinitely.  NEWS OF THE WORLD is definitely Greengrass at his most aesthetically restrained (it might be one of his least action packed pictures on his recent resume), but it's still consummately made with a classically assured and fine eye.   

And yeah, it's so great to see Greengrass re-team up with Hanks after their fact-based nautical thriller CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (perhaps one of the most underrated films on both of their resumes), but parts of me had to accept to somewhat sad fact that NEWS OF THE WORLD is a western that noticeably tries to reach for greatness throughout, but manages to fall short.  The formula for success is absolutely here (one of the best directors and actors of their respected generations tackling an uncharted genre together), but something just seems to be missing from the equation.  NEWS OF THE WORLD is a long film (oftentimes  too much so) considering its episodic nature, which leads to some pacing and momentum issues.  Its final act and finale also hits its beats with a mechanical unavoidability.  And it's awfully hard to shake the notion that Greengrass - an avant garde original known for shaking up genre status quos before - has made a very conventional western, which some viewers will either embrace or dismiss.  I wasn't let down, per se, by NEWS OF THE WORLD, but I did want more out of this film, considering the pedigree of talent on board.   

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