**1/2 out of ****
(for violence, disturbing images, thematic material, and some language)
Released: December 25, 2020
Runtime: 118 minutes
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Ray McKinnon, Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, Neil Sandilands, Chukwudi Iwuji, Fred Hechinger, Christopher Hagen, Michael Angelo Covino
I won’t bury the lead: News of the World isn’t that great.
The full report, however, is more nuanced than that headline, because News of the World isn’t that bad either.
A conventional Western that fans of the genre should appreciate, it may also try the patience of those whose mileage only goes so far with it, even with Tom Hanks starring in his first oater (this side of Toy Story’s Woody, anyway) as the reluctant-but-noble hero at its center.
In short, this is Tom Hanks by way of Gary Cooper, not John Wayne.
Yet for as exciting as the prospect is of Hanks reuniting with his Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass, it’s a 12-year-old girl newcomer from Germany that speaks fluent Native American Kiowan who scene-steals and out-acts the two-time Academy Award winner at every turn. As most of this movie moseys along, she gallops.
Unfolding across rural Texas, Hanks plays Captain Jeffrey Kidd, a veteran solider of multiple wars (including the Civil) who’s now a public news-reader by trade. A traveling loner, he treks from town-to-town, reporting events of the outside world (with flair) at each township stop in the public square.
When Kidd comes across an abandoned girl named Johanna in the wreckage of a roadside ambush – one who’s white but only speaks Kiowan – he takes it upon himself to help her find her way back home, wherever that home may be.
Based on a novel by Paulette Jiles, the story is a fairly uninspired construction, at least as adapted here. It’s a 19th Century road movie replete with its share of gritty struggles and contrived standoffs. Even the novelty of the odd-pairing premise quickly falls into familiar tropes.
Their relationship is further propped up on the clichéd (if understandable) cheat of the each being able to understand the other, despite talking in their own languages. It’s amazing how a few basic gestures can speak a thousand words, apparently.
Kidd’s mission to return Johanna to her family is the thin through-line that ties everything together, i.e. a series of typical Western episodes involving danger and peril. Each is meant to form and tighten a paternal bond between the two, all while giving purpose and meaning to a man who has lost his – along with his beloved wife.
It’s intriguing to see Greengrass step outside his directorial comfort zone of frenetic modern-day thrillers (the Bourne movies among them), choosing instead to work in the tropes of a slower, classic Hollywood tapestry. Even so, it’s not one that comes naturally to him. Here, Greengrass feels more beholden to traditions than inspired by them, acquitting himself well-enough as a filmmaker but never imprinting his own signature.
Hanks’s performance could be described in much the same way, a Hollywood actor applying his Hollywood talents with respectable acumen but without losing himself completely in the role or the period. There are lead actors that don’t do particularly well with character acting (which involves accents, affectations, and the like), and Hanks is one of those guys. He’s at his best when he can do a natural version of himself, within which he’s capable of exploring a wide range.
But when saddled by character baggage, Hanks strains depending on the degree he’s under, never quite convincing or transformative (Forrest Gump being a rather notable exception). That’s the case here, in a role better suited for a Kurt Russell or Sam Elliott.
By comparison, young Helena Zengel feels as defensive and disoriented as the girl she plays, as if she herself were the one rescued off the prairie following a brutal attack.
Simultaneously volatile yet broken, Zengel incarnates a multitude of scars – both fresh and deep-seeded – expressed through a wide range of emotions, each reflexive and spontaneous, all while speaking a Native American language with instinctive confidence. It’s an impressive achievement for anybody, let alone a foreign middle schooler, and promises to be a career-making American debut.
News of the World is effective, so far as genre exercises go. For Western diehards, it should even prove effective all the way through – including a conversation near the end between two humble men who contemplate the injustices of a cruel world (and the requisite guilt that lingers). It’s the kind of scripted lament we only get in the movies, more eloquent than what average men can muster, and the kind we welcome in our stories all the same.
But News of the World is instantly disposable, too, perhaps even for those inclined towards its frontier milieu. I’d be tempted to go so far as to say it’s not only disposable but forgettable, but then Helena Zengel’s breakthrough turn would make that a bald-faced lie.