The 400-Word Review: News of the World
By Sean Collier
January 2, 2021
Listen, directors: People didn’t watch westerns because they loved how sad they were.
Whenever a modern filmmaker attempts to make a throwback western (and all westerns are throwback westerns, I suppose), they inevitably lean into the back-breaking hopelessness of life in the 1800s. That outlook has a kind of truth to it, sure. But the great cinematic depictions of life in the old west were often, also, fun. The superhero movies of their day, westerns were as much pulp and action as they were grit and reality.
“News of the World,” a film by Paul Greengrass, is absolutely no fun at all. It still has its merits, and they are commendable in many areas. But if you cast Tom Hanks as a traveling newsman turned guardian of a defiant pre-teen girl, and you can’t find any moments to liven up the proceedings behind all the threats and death, you did it wrong.
Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kidd, a former Confederate soldier eking out a living as a sort of itinerant town crier; he travels throughout the country collecting newspapers, then gives nightly readings of relevant stories to crowds in smaller towns. En route from one show to another, he finds a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), near an overturned wagon — and a hung man.
The details on Johanna are fuzzy; she’s white, but only speaks the Native American language Kiowa. While she seems to have no parents, either indigenous or otherwise, some documents she carries suggest she may have surviving relatives on the other side of the state — and, as Kidd is informed, he’ll have to get her to them himself.
The two bond over a journey that includes a half-dozen vignettes of hardship and danger and precious little warmth. There are nice moments between Hanks and Zengel, and a few more when an old flame of Kidd’s (Elizabeth Marvel) turns up. For the most part, though, it’s a very dry drama.
It looks great, and James Newton Howard’s score works well enough. In this year of all years, however, are good performances and handsome visuals enough to recommend what is ultimately a drab, weary yarn?
Okay: Kidd does read one silly story to a raucous crowd. It’s literally the last thing that happens in the film. Up until then: frontier sorrow. Come to think of it, even the silly story is technically about someone being buried alive.
My Rating: 5/10