By Elias Savada.
News of the World ambles from scene to scene with an occasional spectacular landscape….Tom Hanks, front and center again, isn’t enough to carry the film.”
It’s hard to believe that over the course of his well-worn career that Tom Hanks has never been in a western (although he voices a cowboy doll in the numerous Toy Story movies), or that director Paul Greengrass, sans his usual flair for handheld camerawork and visceral editing, has now been lulled into taking a softer approach to those tales than many of his fans expect. Greengrass – best known for his startling, well-paced action films including three in the Bourne franchise, Bloody Sunday (2002), his relentlessly realistic autopsy of the blood-stained violence in 1972 Northern Ireland, the frantic thrill ride four years later of doomed flight United 83, and 2018’s July 22, which examined the terrorist attack in Norway 9 years ago – seems like he’d rather entertain us from an easy chair, with his overlong deconstruction of the mythic cowboy saga that is News of the World.
The filmmaker and the actor worked together first in the 2014 docu-drama Captain Phillips, in which Hanks captured another of his many stellar performances as a man under siege. Some folks say he was robbed of an Oscar nod (the film garnered six, including Best Picture, but was shut out of all by either 12 Years a Slave or Gravity). His new role is a fine portrayal of a man adrift in a frenzied world, but nowhere near strong enough, at least in any usual year, to be a top contender. Of course, with the strangeness that is 2020, it’s possible he might squeak in with a nomination, but the film doesn’t afford him much beyond a very sincere character, albeit one that fits him like a glove.
In this work historical fiction, the actor once again sports captain stripes, although he’s now a retired one. As a post-U.S. Civil War story, it’s a period piece that defies the director’s normal approach to his mostly real-life tales. The hero in this case is Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Post Reconstruction-era confederate Everyman, a veteran of two wars fought in and around Texas. His new life is that of a road-weary teller of wondrous tales of exotic places and incredible miracles, reading from publications to eager crowds in need of entertainment. He first catches our eye in Wichita Falls, a small town eager for information on the outside world in early 1870. Hanks’ ability to capture the humanistic approach in his character just showcases his chameleon-like quality to blend into nearly all his films.
It takes less than five minutes before Greengrass (and his co-writer Luke Davies, adapting Paulette Jiles’ novel, a National Book Award finalist) to cut to the meat of this story. Amid the raw, hostile times in a desolate, rough, and plenty racist landscape, the weary captain becomes an unexpected guardian to a young flaxen-haired, blue-eyed, light-complexioned girl who had been abducted and raised by native Kiowa Comanche as their own. She’s a wild child, an orphan twice over, and a chore, yet Kidd reluctantly and humbly decides to repatriate with the small remnant of her German immigrant family left alive in Castroville, Texas – far off his current beaten path. The girl doesn’t even recognize her own name, Johanna Leonberger, instead using that of Cicada, the daughter of Turning Water and Three Spotted, given her by the Native Americans who raised her after she was captured and her family killed.
Their road is paved – well it’s not technically paved just yet – with obstacles. Wretched excuses for humans who want to buy the girl. Yankee soldiers making sure his scattergun is filled with bird shot rather than fully lethal cartridges, and a child filled with anger and resourcefulness. There are friends, too, mostly men who served under his command, but occasionally a gentle woman, one even with a delicate benefit. These supporting players (Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel) are but stopovers in the journey of Kidd and his young charge, nobly portrayed by Helena Zengel, a ten-year-old German actress who starred in last year’s German drama System Crasher, another bonding effort currently available on Netflix. Yes, News of the World is a buddy movie. (No doubt, some of you remember the actor in his first tv role as Kip Wilson in Bosom Buddies.) A handful of bad hombres chase after the pair for one of the few moments of thrill in this otherwise humble road movie.
The daytime jaunts are broken in the evening with Kidd’s reading performances, often in dim lamp-lit gathering rooms, a captive audience not only because of his oratorical ability, but also because of the rain that is often pouring down outside. Sometimes the post-war emotions rise up in the audience, with Kidd ably cooling down federal news about President Ulysses S. Grant that sends some of his crowd, many who disagree with the commander-in-chief’s affinity to abolish any remnants of slavery, into a tither. He calms everyone down, with Greengrass positioning a quick shot of a child nodding her approval of Kidd’s calming affirmations.
The journey offers but a few light-hearted moments, but the times were desperate and the story conveys that. When Johanna scavenges through the food staples Kidd has packed for their trip down to Central Texas, she grimaces after chewing on some coffee grounds. “Yeah, coffee packs a punch, doesn’t it,” Kidd offers her in comfort as she spits out the bare grind. “It’s an acquired taste,” he adds, knowing full well she doesn’t understand his humor, or his English. Johanna, however, quickly takes an oversized shine to sugar. Later, she gobbles down some stew…with her fingers.
As for Tom Hanks, he’s front and center, again – and never off screen. It’s still not enough to carry the film to infinity, and beyond. Or at least beyond the widescreen plains of Texas (with actual locations in New Mexico), where the earth-toned splendor is stunningly crafted by production designer David Crank and captured by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (The Martian and the first four Pirates of the Caribbean films). The atmosphere is definitely all there, but the film never soars above its technical merits and the trademark Hanks shine.
News of the World ambles from scene to scene with an occasional spectacular landscape breaking through this tale of two homeless souls who don’t yet know how comforting they are to each other. Its low-key, old-fashioned approach works up to a point, but don’t expect true greatness here.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).