Movie Review: News of the World (2020)

Posted: May 16, 2021 in Drama

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a former army Captain who fought for Texas in the Civil War.  He now ekes out a living as an itinerant reader of newspaper stories, going from town to town informing people what’s going on in the states around them.  One day, during his travels, Kidd discovers a 10-year-old orphaned German girl raised by the Kiowa people, named Johanna, (Helena Zengel) and takes her along with him.  He intends to drop her at the Department of Indian Affairs, but when that fails, he tries to leave Johanna with an old Civil War comrade Simon Boudin, (Ray McKinnon) and his wife, Doris (Mare Winningham), but she runs away, so Kidd takes her with him to reunite Johanna with her uncle and aunt. 

In the first town Kidd rides into, he encounters a man named Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) who offers Kidd 100 dollars to take Johanna off his hands.  Sensing Almay’s nefarious intentions for the child, Kidd refuses.  Almay and two others chase Kidd and Joanna down to a rocky outcropping outside of town, but Kidd and Johanna escape, after some quick thinking by Johana.  In the next town, the two discover a demagogue named Merrit Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) who rules over his town with an iron fist.  He wants Kidd dead for filling people’s heads with dangerous ideas.  Does Kidd get out alive this time?  Does he return Johanna to her aunt and uncle? 

News of The World seems to have borrowed a lot from John Ford’s classic Western, The Searchers, where John Wayne’s character wants to return a girl, taken by the Comanche, to her family.  But this film has a different focus, not finding a missing girl, but getting the girl back to her family.  The sense of excitement is not the same either, because the threat to Kidd and Johanna never seemed existential.  The Farley character may have been some editorializing on our current politics, but it was flat and unemotional There are also lots of scenes where Johanna and Kidd can’t communicate, because Kidd doesn’t speak Kiowa, and Johanna doesn’t speak English, that hampers the narrative a lot.  The ending doesn’t help this movie at all, it shifts the tone entirely, and hurts the overall film.  It’s surprising that Paul Greengrass, who wrote Jason Bourne and United 93, would write such a pedestrian screenplay. 

Tom Hanks tries to play the strong silent John Wayne Gary Cooper type role, but it doesn’t work.  Hanks taking to a volleyball in Castaway is not his best moment.  Hanks is much better with dialogue. Greengrass gives Hanks some dialogue, but Hanks sounds like a snake oil salesman than a news reader, so this is not Tom Hanks at his best.  Helena Zengel does a much better job of conveying the pain of being orphaned twice, and she does it with a paucity of words, mostly with her eyes, and a few words of Kiowa.  It is an excellent performance.  It’s basically a two-person movie, and Zengel not only holds her own with Hank, she betters him. 

Director Greengrass gets a few nice visuals, a cattle drive, a windstorm, and some picturesque views of New Mexico, that hardly makes up for the languid pacing of this film.  And for some reason, at what should be the set piece of the film, he interrupts the narrative and makes the viewer guess what happens next.  News of the World is not Greengrass’ best effort. 

News of the World:  Bad news for Hanks fans.

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