Directed by Paul Greengrass – director of the Bourne franchise – and starring Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel, “News of the world” is a new western in the year 2021, and…its pretty good. Tom Hanks is excellent, young Zengel is doing a fantastic job not only keeping up with Hanks but at times matching him, Greengrass signature handheld style is absent from this movie and it allows the well written story and characters to take center stage and deliver an entertaining and worthwhile couple of hours; if you temper your expectations to watching a western that is more drama than action, and it being really good at it but not particularly excellent, you’ll have a great time.
The movie follows Captain Kidd, a Civil war veteran who has now made a life reading the news to folks, as he travels from town to town barely scrapping together a living. During one commune, he finds a young girl who speaks Kiowa and is seemingly abandoned from the world with no home, just relatives halfway across the country, which is where he decides to take her, despite the long and perilous journey. Obviously, this isn’t the most original western ever told (it’s only a Russell Crowe away from “3:10 to Yuma”), but what it lacks in originality it makes up with a solid execution of the experience it aims for. Although it comes from Paul Greengrass, the action is subdued and more of a narrative reflection of the characters, and the camera is as steady as you’d like; that’s not to say there isn’t any action or that it is bad, but some may go in expecting the director of the Bourne franchise to have more bombastic action. In fact, I thought there was not enough action to properly convey the danger of the trip the duo is making, but given the age of both protagonists that could have come off as immersion breaking.
What the movie lacks in action and memorable set pieces (besides an instance with a laughably bad CGI rock) it makes up for with a great story and characters that are well realized and interesting. Captain Kidd is a Civil war veteran for the South and he has to deal with fighting for the wrong side, while also running from his past before the war. On the other hand, the girl whose name is Johanna has a very different struggle with her past; she was abducted from her German family when she was a baby, raised by the Kiowa as one of their own. Now, the Kiowa are slowly dying out and her identity is in question; despite her abduction, she has lived more and was exclusively raised as Kiowa, yet her papers say German, so what is she and where does she belong? Can she be reformed from the peculiar and unconventional ways of her raising, to those accepted by the society she is bound to end up in? This is where the movie truly shines. Seeing the Captain, a man embracing the society he fought against and trying to amend the error of his ways, risking his life for a kid he does not know and is actively rejected by everyone, is a great vehicle for the story to explore themes of identity, servitude, and fighting our own demons to escape and redeem ourselves; it also makes for a highly entertaining road trip with two characters that work well off each other. Their characterization is top notch and I loved seeing them deal with new obstacles and dangers, as much as I enjoyed watching Captain Kidd trying to teach Johanna to speak English and vice versa.
That brings me nicely to the second highlight of the movie, which is the acting. Tom Hanks is a known quality by now and to say he outdoes himself would be an overstatement, but he is as excellent as ever; he chews up the scene whenever he is on-screen, especially for the dramatic moments, and his chemistry with Zengel is clearly visible. Zengel herself proves to be a promising actor with a surprisingly great performance; she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with and her character is incredibly complicated and difficult to pull off for any actor, yet she handles it like she had decades worth of experience and practice.
As far as negatives go, the movie does grow a bit stale towards the end; there were a few moments where it felt like it crescendo and it would be wrapping things up, but it kept going to another similar spot to keep going again, before finally reaching the same finality and ending. I get why they did that, but it did feel weird and prolonged when it could have had a much more concise and “punchier” ending. It also felt a bit safe, in regards to the history and its characters place in it; although Kidd does not hide from who he fought for and the movie does get into some uncomfortable territory when it comes to issues of what the South was fighting for, I felt like there was a lot more they could have explored. This is an adaptation of a book, so maybe the source material is more to blame there, but I wish it was a bit more adventurous in exploring some of the darkest times in American history.
All in all, I really enjoyed “News of the world”. It’s a solid western that has great acting and a script that the whole crew should be proud off, especially in how they translated it onto the screen. Its not perfect and it won’t blow anyone away with any specific feature, it is a very worthwhile endeavor and a highly enjoyable couple of hours.