Written by: Patrick Howard | December 13th, 2020
News of the World (Paul Greengrass, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.
Hollywood legend Tom Hanks and acclaimed director Paul Greengrass (who previously collaborated on Captain Phillips) combine their talents once again to make way for Hanks’ debut in the Western genre. Of course, Hanks isn’t a complete stranger to the realm of horses, tumble weeds and spurs: his efforts as the voice of Toy Story’s Sheriff Woody reserved Hanks a cowboy spot in the hearts of millions of children. Does this example technically count? Probably not, but it’s good to see a more than capable actor do what he does best in a genre that has eluded him for over 40 years.
Based on the 2016 American Western novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, News of the World tells the story of Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, played by Hanks. Since the South’s surrender, Captain Kidd has traveled from town to town, in the Deep South, reading the local news to a paying audience. The captain’s life is no more eventful than the next man’s; however, Kidd’s humdrum life is thrown for a loop when he becomes the new guardian of a little girl, who has experienced the loss of her biological family and her adoptive Native American family. There’s news of the girl having family in Castroville, Texas, but that journey involves hundreds of miles of rugged terrain and other unpredictable dangers.
News of the World is chock-full of interesting ideas about the state of a nation after a bloody war that rocked it to its core. The tension between Southern folk and the Union soldiers occupying the newly rejoined states is legitimately engaging and Tom Hanks is right in the heart of it. The hosts of the podcast Blank Check with Griffin & David have repeatedly said that Tom Hanks is at the top of his game when he’s playing men who are competent at their jobs. There is always a level of comfort we derive from seeing Hanks take control of a high-stakes situation and lead the less capable to safety. Even during the scenes of Hanks reading from newspapers, which are painfully short, he behaves as a calming force to the spirited townsfolks.
The frustration that lies in these ideas is that they don’t become anything more than that. The meat of the story is the relationship between Captain Kidd and the girl, played by Helena Zengel. Greengrass decides to clue the audience in on major plot developments sparingly. The information we are given about Captain Kidd’s past, the girl’s history with the Kiowa tribe and the horrific death of her family are sprinkled in with a passing line here and a visual cue there. Once the film passes the one-hour mark, you have an idea of what these characters experienced, but it’s not enough to care as each of their stories meet its climactic end.