There’s an age-old aesthetic in “News of the World” that might make it easy to dismiss as a “daddy movie,” something that’s playing on TNT in regular rotation for the next decade (which it almost certainly will), but it’s a well-calibrated genre film. harder to pull off than it looks. There is attention to detail in every corner of this film, including not only the period recreation but everything from James Newton Howard’s splendid score to Tom Hanks’ smooth performance. That’s what will happen to a lot of people this holiday season. Yes, it’s relatively predictable and arguably a little thin in terms of ambition, but it’s also refined and nuanced in a way these films often don’t. Everyone here is at the peak of their craft from the character actors who fill the ensemble to the two main leads in the middle to everyone behind the camera, and you can feel it from the first frame to the last.
Hanks reunited with his “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass to play a very different kind of Captain in Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a traveler in Texas in 1870, shortly after the end of the Civil War. Kidd is a newsreader, someone who travels from town to town and actually gets paid to read the news to the locals. Home delivery wasn’t all that important 150 years ago and many people in these small towns can’t even read, so they rely on people like Kidd to tell them what’s going on in the world. The chosen profession has made him an isolated wanderer, but it has also instilled a deep humanity in Kidd that has given him the air of an ancient storyteller. He is both an entertainer and an informant, choosing what to read and how to present it. His travels and encounters also meant he could read people better than most people, which would be important for the next chapter in his life.
It started when he found the murder scene. A black driver had been hanged from a tree and a blonde girl spotted Kidd from a nearby forest. Kidd decides to take a girl he names Johanna (the wonderful Helena Zengel) to safety, even though she speaks no English and appears to have spent most of her youth in Native American captivity. He is of German descent but speaks Kiowa, and he was brought to the authorities after the tribe that raised him was killed. Kidd realized that he had to find this orphanage.
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These early scenes may be simple in narrative structure but Greengrass, Hanks, and the team behind the film add so much elegance and nuance to them. Hanks has been a very refined actor over the years, finding the little beats to define Kidd at every turn but never feeling flashy. He is truly in the moment in the film, responding confidently to every situation instead of sinking into the bland protagonists that could hinder the film. This is yet another recent turn that feels like it won’t get enough attention because she makes it look so effortless (see also “Captain Phillips,” “Bridge of Spies” and “Sully,” among others).
“News of the World” becomes something of a street movie for Kidd and Johanna, with a new encounter in an unstable landscape. (After the end of the Civil War, Texas wasn’t the safest place in the country.) Greengrass composes it in an episodic way that detracts from the middle, where the film sag slightly as it jumps from encounter to encounter. The setting is so well done that watching the film into a road trip might be a bit of a letdown, though Greengrass brings out some of his action film-directing skills when needed, such as in a tense shoot-out with multiple people. bastard who tried to buy Johanna. However, there is a better version of “World News” which has slightly higher stakes. As difficult as the journey was, neither Kidd nor Johanna had any bruises or scars to show,
Greengrass is also smart enough to inspire his 1870 West with some 2020 ideas. Kidd finds his way to Erath County, where the atmosphere is isolated and, sorry, fake news. The most prominent figure in the area, Mr Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) insists that Kidd reads his propaganda paper about expelling everyone from the area except whites, and connections to disinformation in modern times are not difficult to make. And the idea of a man trying to reunite a fractured nation through knowledge and decency also has relevance in 2020.
Not all of these themes are fully refined, but “World News” sticks together and keeps it entertained at its best. This may feel like the most traditional of Greengrass films, but there’s an energy for direction here that isn’t always seen in the West. It helps that this is arguably the director’s most aesthetically striking film, with a gorgeous view captured by Darius Wolski and one of the year’s best scores from James Newton Howard. And it’s great to see so many beautiful faces fill the cast like Ray McKinnon, Elizabeth Marvel, and Bill Camp. On paper, this simple, well-told story might not seem like much, but, at the end of a year where comfort is hard to find, this film can sometimes feel like a gift.
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