In Paul Greenrass’ new film, News of the World, a veteran of the Civil War travels across the country reading the news from papers he collects. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) shares stories of disasters, politics and gossip for audiences in every town he visits. He’s mainly talking to people who are illiterate or have little time to read the newspapers themselves. But they’re only too happy to pay a dime to hear him read the news in his engaging fashion and inform them of what is happening outside their small community. The importance of accurate news reports, even 150 years ago, gives it a contemporary resonance in this era of “fake news” and a healthy distrust of mainstream media. In one frontier town he’s strongly encouraged by the despot who controls the town to read his own publication, one filled with hateful rhetoric. But he refuses, bringing about a minor insurrection.
Travelling through Texas, he stumbles on Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old orphan girl who had previously been kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe. Her German immigrant family were massacred by the Kiowa six years before. Now her Kiowa family have been massacred by US troops. Kidd reluctantly sets out to return Johanna to her biological uncle, her only remaining family. But it’s a journey fraught with dangers as the pair travel across 700 miles of unforgiving wilderness, both looking for a place of refuge and safety.
This is something of a redemption tale as Kidd is still haunted by the things he witnessed during the bloody Civil War. He’s also still grieving over the death of his wife while he was away from home. The relationship that develops between Kidd and Johanna – even though they cannot communicate in the same language – is the emotional crux of the film. This gives this the feel of a typical road movie, albeit set in the old West. It’s a familiar trope but it again works well here.
Hanks is reunited here with his Captain Phillips director Greengrass, who elicited one of the dual Oscar winner’s best performances in that tense sea hijacking drama. Greengrass usually gives his films a sense of immediacy and urgency through his use of rapid cross-cutting editing (the Bourne films, for example). But here he employs a more deliberate and measured pace that suits the material. An extended sequence in which three killers pursued Kidd and Johanna through rocky terrain is milked for maximum tension.
Hanks is a likeable and consummate actor. Here he brings his innate sense of intelligence, decency and quiet gravitas to the taciturn Kidd. But a couple of scenes also demonstrate the character is indeed capable of handling himself in dangerous situations with a few of the villainous characters roaming the wild west. This is the first English language film for young German actress Zengel (System Crasher) and she acquits herself well in the emotionally demanding role as a young girl caught between two cultures.
The screenplay by Greengrass and Luke Davies (Lion) is based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles. It highlights that, even though the Civil War ended years earlier, the southern states were still very much divided socially and politically.
The film was shot on location in New Mexico. The open landscapes give News of the World the look and feel of an old fashioned Western, from the heyday of John Ford, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. The gorgeous widescreen cinematography of veteran Dariusz Wolski (The Martian) lends this an epic feel.
News of the World is in cinemas now, and releases on Netflix on 10 February 2021
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film