News of the World (2021)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenwriters: Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Tom Astor, Travis Johnson, Andy Kastelic, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham
As much as watching John Wayne galloping through the dust in countless carbon-copy, rinse-and-repeat flicks that end up on TCM at 1 in the afternoon is a great way to spend a lazy day, the Western can end up being cliché after cliché. It’s not impossible to break away from formula, but it’s a nice change when a film decides not to give 75 minutes of cowboys vs Indians. How nice it is, therefore, that we have a Western which doesn’t try to replicate the tight gunfight-laden flicks of yesteryear, but takes a leisurely time, strolling through the dust to tell a different story against a familiar backdrop.
Based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, News of the World tags along with Captain Jefferson Kidd (played by Tom Hanks), a retired Civil War veteran who goes from town to town reading the newspapers to those who can’t read or don’t have the time to. He picks up a young girl, Johanna (played by Helena Zengel in her international debut), taken by Native Americans at a young age, now knowing no English and without family or a home. The two begin a long and perilous journey to return Johanna to the only family she has left, 400 miles across the Texan wilderness.
Hanks plays the calm, collected, ordered newsman with measured skill, but the real triumph is Zengel’s performance. Thank every cinematic god above that the producers cast a German girl to play a character with German heritage, so that the odd snippets of German which sneak through in Johanna’s dialogue aren’t said with a bad, forced accent. The pair manage to work up some good chemistry together in the quiet moments, so the jeopardy hits home in the suspense sequences and pulls adequately on the heart when the script calls for it.
Paul Greengrass’s direction is good for the most part, though he has a fascination with reaction shots when they’re not needed. This could, however, be on the part of editor William Goldenberg. In a story about family and communities, and being alone and forgotten in a big wide world demonstrated through shots of sweeping, wild landscapes (with beautiful cinematography from Dariusz Wolski), sometimes that empty, solitary feeling could seep through a little more in the edit, instead of trying to hype it up when it’s not needed. You’ve got some shootouts, sure, and they need some good, impactful edits, but pick your time.
The strangest thing about News of the World is that whilst it’s good, it is just that. It’s technically accomplished, the story keeps a tight rein on its character arcs, it looks great, the music works, and the acting is good, but the film plods along doing its thing without really trying anything incredible. It’s a safe picture. You don’t need something jaw-dropping and radical in every film, but the word ‘adventurous’ won’t even cross your mind. Within ten minutes, News of the World tells us of its final destination, and like an old mule, stubbornly refuses to look for an alternative.
News of the World is, whilst longer and more introspective than the typical gunslinger of old, still unable to do anything incredibly fresh or invigorating. The film knows exactly what’s expected, and it gets on and does it. It’s two hours well spent with a serene, sometimes emotional picture, but you’ll forget you watched it almost before it’s finished.