NEWS OF THE WORLD
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 EdgefieldDirected 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
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.
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