News of the World squanders chance to tell unique Western story
The last time Tom Hanks teamed up with writer/director Paul Greengrass, it led to one of his best performances in Captain Phillips. That film was based on a real story where the stakes couldn’t have been higher for Hanks’ titular character. Their latest collaboration, News of the World, is fictional, but continues on that theme of life-or-death situations.
Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former soldier who makes a living in post-Civil War America by traveling from town to town reading news from various papers across the country to interested audiences. It’s during one of his trips in Texas that he encounters Johanna (Helena Zengel), a young girl he discovers had been kidnapped by members of the Kiowa tribe for six years. In the process of being returned to her family, her wagon was ambushed, leaving her all alone.
With no good options for anyone else to take her to her aunt and uncle in Castroville, Texas, Kidd decides to take on the responsibility himself. Having essentially been raised Kiowa, Johanna only speaks their language, and their journey is spent with the two of them trying to figure out how to communicate, as well as fend off the many dangers of life in the Old West.
Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, the film (co-written by Luke Davies) is relatively straightforward, perhaps too much so. The story starts off interesting, as the idea of a man entertaining others just by reading the news paired with a girl with whom he has almost no way to talk is intriguing. Indeed, it’s their “conversations” that comprise some of the best moments of the film, as the two constantly feel each other out and bond over unspoken sentiments.
It’s when the movie transitions into genre stereotypes that it starts to falter a bit. Although Kidd is not a character typical of Westerns, the story relies on a variety of Western tropes to move it along. One of the main action sequences in the film becomes close to laughable as Kidd and Johanna try to escape a trio of bad guys. A pursuit that starts off late at night finishes in the bright sunshine for seemingly no reason; thankfully, the gun battle at its end makes up for the logical fallacy.
What the film never seems to want to wrestle with is difficult topics like festering Civil War sentiments or relations between Native Americans and white settlers. Kidd is a voice of reason who seems to know how to ingratiate himself to any crowd, but his calming presence helps Greengrass elide the film’s thorny issues when they briefly arise.
The character of Kidd fits right in with Hanks’ reputation for playing nice guys, but, as always, he brings more to the table than might be apparent on the surface. Kidd has a bit of a tortured history, and that sadness can be read on Hanks' face throughout, whether the scene involves Kidd's past or not. Zengel, a German actress, plays Johanna as both feral and innocent, and she hits the right notes 99 percent of the time.
Greengrass is known for his verisimilitude in his docudramas and the Bourne series, but he misses the mark a bit with News of the World. The relationship between Kidd and Johanna is of paramount importance in this film; any big Western flourishes should have been secondary to that part.
News of the World opens in theaters on December 25.