Tom Hanks stars as Colonel Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War survivor who makes a small living traveling town to town, taking to the stage for recitations of the news from various papers. The town folk pay to listen as Kidd engages their hope, anger and fascination, with stories printed from varying sources. While taking his wagon to another scheduled stop, Kidd discovers a young girl, named Johanna (played by Helena Zengel), who doesn’t speak English, is alone and has no way of rejoining her family. Kidd decides, reluctantly at first, to cross dangerous territories to reunite her with surviving relatives.
News of the World, a pokey, episodic western, is fairly predictable and really soft (both around the edges and in its center). Director Paul Greengrass, a force of nature on most films, is out of his element here. It takes a while for the story to kick into gear but even at its most tense, the suspense and building momentum are too slack.
It oddly reminded me of Kevin Costner’s The Postman, which was also about a man whose purpose is found in going from town to town and offering information and hope as a form of lifting up the community. While Greengrass seems to aping the approach of varying filmmakers in how to craft a western (there are visual shades of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, as well as John Ford’s The Searchers and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), his greatest success is making this bizarrely reminiscent of Costner’s 1997 fiasco.
To no one’s surprise, Hanks carries the film; he’s done this before, making a middle of the road film more than just watchable. As in A Hologram for the King and Charlie Wilson’s War (to name just a few), Hanks is giving his all to a film that winds up being a non-event. To say the least, this doesn’t recapture the rage and dramatic power of Hanks/Greengrass’ prior collaboration, Captain Phillips.
It’s not entirely Zengal’s fault that Johanna is such a cryptic character. What is unfortunate is that she and Hanks have no chemistry, as he invests much warmth and feeling into scenes where there is no reciprocation from his co-star; note their final scenes together, which fail to hit the emotional levels sought.
Hanks “performing” the news is captivating to watch and a loaded metaphor that only partly comes across; we see how Kidd is able to manipulate the emotion of the room by way of his reading, a clear commentary on how news is both information and manipulation. Yet, later on, there’s a scene where Kidd uses the written word to control an angry mob, which goes down so easily, it strains credibility.
The notion of the traveling newspaper reader and his method of appeasing the town folk with his self-conscious renderings of the printed news is a worthy metaphor. So is Hank’s character in general, as he represents America’s dark past and she is the wounded hope for the future. Together, they encounter the worst representatives of the Wild West. At one point, Kidd declares, “I want to get you away from all this killing and pain.” It’s a lovely bit of dialog, but nothing here has the anguish of Unforgiven. Because the past of our lead character is never shown but only hinted it in quick hits of exposition, the tragedy they’ve endured doesn’t register as much as it should.
News of the World is respectable and good looking but Greengrass’ film misses as much as Green Zone and Jason Bourne did and in a similar way- it’s too much to ask to have a charismatic actor lug the film on his shoulders and singlehandedly overcome the many shortcomings. While the art direction is just right, Greengrass has considerable trouble shaping an emotionally resonant horse opera.
I liked much of the film, particularly Hanks’ work, but this isn’t a great western and never generates the kind of excitement and emotion it needed to soar.