News of the World is the kind of film you don't much see anymore, a retro-styled Western content to be a retro-styled Western. It's a slow film, meandering even, but it's a patient and thoughtful film with a patient and thoughtful ensemble cast led by Tom Hanks, Hollywood's esteemed journeyman who tackles this Western like it's a genre he's been working in since the day he was born.
Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a storytelling loner of sorts who lives a live without much in the way of a commitment until he actually makes one.
It's a big one.
He stumbles across an overturned wagon, its Black driver hanging from a nearby tree and a young child, Johanna is her name, hiding scared in the bushes. We learn that she's been orphaned twice over - the first when a Kiowa tribe took her from her birth family and the second when that same Kiowa tribe gets wiped out.
She survives, but she's a little worse for the wear.
You already know, and you're most likely correct, the journey that News of the World is going to take. There aren't a whole lot of surprises to be had here, a predictable formula that may bother some while others will simply find it comfortable. Captain Kidd will, of course, try to hand off the young one to the authorities. However, this is Texas in the years immediately following the Civil War and the authorities have other things on their minds.
Hauling a practically speechless 10-year-old girl hundreds of miles across dangerous country isn't one of them.
So, of course, Kidd decides to do it himself despite every single sign it's a bad idea.
News of the World is directed by Paul Greengrass, a love him or hate him director serving up his second collaboration with Hanks after the critically successful Captain Phillips. Greengrass understands the broadness of the story, while Hanks is more the master of bringing the little moments to life.
Together, Greengrass and Hanks put together a simple yet engaging story that captures the universality of this moment in time and the intimacy of this story. This is, if we're being honest, a role that Hanks could have done in his sleep. For the better of all of us, Hanks never shows up to a set and sleepwalks through it.
There's practically no denying that flashbacks to True Grit are bound to happen here. While the original survives unscathed here and I have little doubt most will likely prefer the Coen remake over this endeavor, for my money I'd spend a couple hours with this film any day of the week. A huge part of the reason for that is the breakthrough performance of young Helena Zengel as Johanna, a mostly silent young girl whose words when they do come out come out as a language not easily understood. Zengel's is a revelatory performance, aching and vulnerable and traumatized yet also innocent and vulnerable and even filled with more than a little bit of childhood wonder. This isn't the young German actress's first performance, however, it's easily her most visible effort and will no doubt lead to more offers.
Hanks is being given an awards season push here, no surprise, though he's bound to be hindered by the fact that he makes it all look so easy. Whether he's an entertaining storyteller/newsreader charging local folks a dime for the entertainment or a rascally protector determined to do what's right, Hanks sells it and he sells it with the usual casual intimacy that Hanks always infuses in his characters. It's not surprising that Kidd and Johanna will encounter increasingly threatening obstacles along the way to an extended family home she's never known, but it may be surprising just how expertly Greengrass and Hanks weave themselves together to bring it all to life.
Among the supporting players, Thomas Francis Murphy is perhaps most effective as Mr. Farley, a dominant force in Erath County determined to continue the ways of the South long after the war has been over. If you don't draw comparisons to the current political climate, you're probably not paying attention.
Truthfully, I wasn't convinced that Greengrass could pull this film off. He's always been a filmmaker with a more contemporary vibe, but he immerses himself in the classic Western vibe and the seeds he plants no doubt start to grow. James Newton Howard's original score is enveloping and Darius Wolszki's lensing practically bathes us in the film's wide vistas and quiet expressions.
If you're expecting a John Wayne experience here, you'll likely be disappointed. Hanks is closer to James Stewart than he is Wayne and he brings the film's inherent predictability beautifully to life with a quiet yet genuine soulfulness filled with emotions this storyteller has likely never expressed.
I liked News of the World. In fact, I loved News of the World. I loved it in that same way I loved those Saturday morning Western flicks I used to watch as a kid where I knew the good guy was going to win but I sure enjoyed watching him do it. Hanks is the good guy here, no doubt, and I enjoyed watching him be the good guy in a world that was still on the edge.
Greengrass's often found cinematic flourishes are for the most part not to be found here, replaced instead by a slow and steady classicism that never strikes a false note ven if every note it strikes feels as if it's been played before. An old-fashioned Western at a time when a good number of us could use something warm and familiar, News of the World is a purely feel-good Western that accomplishes what it sets out to do.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic