Truth and Movies

News of the World

Review by Charles Bramesco @intothecrevasse

Directed by

Paul Greengrass

Starring

Helena Zengel Ray McKinnon Tom Hanks

Anticipation.

Go West, young (eh, not-so-young) Hanks.

Enjoyment.

This frontier ramble feels a bit staid.

In Retrospect.

A respectable film about a respectable man.

Tom Hanks saddles up for a classically-styled western about a Civil War veteran who rescues an orphaned girl.

The western genre is dotted with matching sets of adult men and their young charges, a dynamic lending itself readily to frontier-settlement narratives. The older guardian is always grizzled, hardy, harbouring some painful memories about his own past; the individual in his care has to be softer, defenceless to the many perils of the untamed land, traditionally a child or woman.

The particulars may change, but the subtext suggesting that the hope for civility and compassion can only be defended by the sort of coarse personality that must be left behind for culture to follow remains the same.

Paul Greengrass places his latest film News of the World in this classical heritage, pairing a widower veteran with an orphaned girl so that they may fill the vacuums in each other’s hearts and gesture toward a bright new direction for a still-nascent America. Except that as the well-mannered and peaceable Jefferson Kyle Kidd, Tom Hanks is a far cry from the spittin’, cussin’, rough-ridin’ cowpokes of oaters past.

More wounded lover than fighter, he’s a newsreader by profession, bringing reports of major developments on the national and global stages to the isolated villages beyond the dividing line of the Mississippi. This polite choice of vocation is of a piece with Greengrass’ overall aspiration to a more buttoned-up take on the Fordian mode, a dignified tone that makes for a handsomely mounted piece of work, if lacking in the grit one expects from the kill-or-be-killed milieu.

Kidd’s gentle demeanour makes him an ideal custodian for the wayward Johanna (the then-eleven-year-old Helena Zengel, a magnificent find), taken from her German family by the Kiowa people and then left alone after her reluctantly adopted tribe was massacred. He agrees to chaperone the largely taciturn youngster to her more distant relatives’ encampment across hundreds of treacherous miles on a noble mission befitting Kidd’s good-guy bona fides.

He’s kind and patient with her, slowly breaking down the language barrier as the hours spent on the road and the dangers skirted along the way bring them closer together. Here’s where Hanks’ casting comes in handy, as the paternal, reassuring aura he’s built up over years of playing authority figures and moral champions adds the impression of finer shading to his character. His approachable ease also makes him a valuable foil to the deep well of nonverbal solemnity inside Johanna, the voice to break the silence as they ramble.

Hanks’ righteousness informs his character’s work, too; the film picks up in 1870, with the divisions opened by the Civil War far from healed though the fighting has ceased, as Kidd attempts to unite a broken nation. He urges togetherness and understanding despite These Desperate and Unprecedented Times, in a clear clarion call to an America more entrenched in partisan conflict than ever. A decently intended effort, to be sure, but it’s a milquetoast notion all the same that the power of storytelling could be sufficient to bridge opposite sides of the political aisle.

Aside from his frequent returns to the Bourne franchise, Greengrass specialises in recreations of violent tragedy so realistic that they ignite philosophical arguments about exploitation in art. In comparison, his detour to parts West lands as little more than a safe choice, modest even as sweeping cattle drives and tempestuous dust storms inflate the sense of scale. This is one of those movies that invites the shorthand criticism of being “for dads,” not so much in its stolid masculinity, but more in how it packages the wilds of history for comfortable viewing after dinner and before falling asleep on the couch.

News of the World is available on Netflix from 10 February.

Published 7 Feb 2021

Tags: News of the World Paul Greengrass Tom Hanks

Anticipation.

Go West, young (eh, not-so-young) Hanks.

Enjoyment.

This frontier ramble feels a bit staid.

In Retrospect.

A respectable film about a respectable man.

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