Paul Greengrass does not make dull movies. Call any film in his filmography what you want - from his three "Bourne" films to "22 July" to "Green Zone" to "United 93" to you name it - but they are full of action and drive. "News of the World" definitely fits into the Greengrass film canon, with a stellar performance by Tom Hanks leading the way. But while Greengrass's latest effort is far from dull, it's also a bit too hollow to rank among his best work.
Working with Greengrass for a second-time following their previous effort, 2013 Oscar-nominated film, "Captain Phillips," Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a mild-mannered Civil War veteran who makes his living traveling from town to town in the West, reading headlines - or "news of the world" - from various newspapers he has collected along the way. These were different times, when news was valued, and people would gather in dingy bars or inns just to hear Captain Kidd tell his stories from afar. You must realize, most people out West back in the late 1800s had no local paper, and no real connection to the wider world beyond their village limits. It was a modest living, but it was a living for Captain Kidd.
Traveling in-between towns on one particular trip, Kidd stumbles upon a little blonde-headed girl (Helena Zengel) not too far from a ransacked cart. It's not that she can't talk, it's that she only speaks a native language, one that Kidd does not. Finding papers for a "Johanna Leonberger" in the cart wreckage, he names her as such, and agrees to take her to a nearby town where she can be looked after. When the local officials shun his arrival, he sets out to return her to the Leonburger family deep in the heart of Texas.
This little girl is, in fact, not Johanna. Twice orphaned, it's more than implied that she was raised by a native tribe, but she then witnessed their terrible slaughter at the hands of some passing marauders. But soon Captain Kidd gains her trust as they rely on one another to survive the treacherous journey.
Played by a different actor, "News of the World" would simply not work. Only Tom Hanks can emote such genuine kindness, and still pull off deep, heartfelt pain. He is a war veteran but he's a good man. There's no easier or better way to get this across to an audience than to just cast Tom Hanks in the role.
Much of the problem with the film is that nearly every obstacle the pair have to overcome feels forced or worse, contrived. It's essentially a road movie, where they must overcome an attack by thieves, a gang of bad men and a sandstorm, all with limited resources. It's as if they just had the worst luck in the world...another version of this story would just have them travel, uneventfully, to their desired destination. I guess the different encounters show the various dangers that existed at the time, but it all just seems like a bit much. They even just so happen to pass by Johanna's old digs at one point...what are the chances of that?
Hanks alone makes "News of the World" worth investing in...it's not a journey to nowhere, it's just that we can clearly see the road ahead, and it's not all that trail-blazing.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama.
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Chukwudi Iwuji, Thomas Francis Murphy.
Co-Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass ("22 July," "Jason Bourne," "Captain Phillips," "Green Zone," "United 93," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "The Bourne Supremacy").
"News of the World" is set for release on Christmas Day, 2020.
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