Directed by Paul Greengrass, the Western News of the World is different from Greengrass’ usual output of shaky cam visceral docudramas like United 93 or multiple Jason Bourne movies. Actually, the most surprising thing about News is that Greengrass can actually provide steady handed visuals. A slow look befits the Western genre instead of movies about amnesiac super-spies. Like pretty much all Westerns, News takes its sweet, lollygagging time to get to the point. But moments can be stirring as News has something surprisingly relevant to say about how true information can inspire change. The surrogate father and orphan kid story may be a well-worn Western cliché, but it is effective.
In the 1800s after the United States civil war, Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), makes a living by travelling to cities in the south and reading from selected newspapers to the masses. One day, he stumbles across a wrecked carriage, a dead body, and most surprisingly, finds a young white girl speaking like a Native American. She has papers that identify her as Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) and Kidd has to trek her across the South to find her surviving family. Now Kidd and the child avoid various pitfalls along the road while Kidd learns to look after the Johanna as she learns more about herself.
Critics have been proclaiming the death of the Western genre for decades but still Westerns are made every year. The stoic loner on a dusty trail who cares for his mysterious young charge is a template of Westerns everywhere, even in post-modern Western sci-fi mash ups like Logan or The Mandalorian. But even though this type of story has been done, it is still effective in News of the World. Kidd’s job of spreading knowledge for a dime makes him a cross between a preacher and a teacher and, like most aged Western heroes, he had a history of violence that he is trying to renounce. Hanks has a weathered, beaten down, world weary look in what is, surprisingly, his first Western role. Admittedly, this movie is yet another spin on the Saint Tom Hanks roles he often plays but he’s good at what he does.
A lot of what makes the movie work is his chemistry with Zengel and she goes through a really compelling arc without speaking much English. She freaks out loudly whenever someone tries to rein her in but begrudgingly begins to accept the way Kidd shows the world. One particularly emotional and heartbreaking moment has her running off when she sees a caravan of Natives in a rainstorm and she pleads loudly for them to retrieve her. Also a powerful scene is when Johanna finds the destroyed home of her original biological family and looks through the wreckage as old memories stir up.
As with any Western, the film is a bit episodic as they duo are travelling across the country they run into various nefarious folks with ill intent and environmental hazards. A reason the life-or-death stakes are effective is because in Westerns heroic sacrifice is not uncommon which makes it seem both characters are likely to bite it at any moment. One bit has their carriage break down on a perilous area of their journey which is leads to an extremely jarring, visceral crash. The duo run into some sketchy looking cowboys at a town and it gets harrowing rather quickly. While it may stretch a wee bit of credibility that the trio of nefarious creeps are so determined to snatch up Johanna that they would chase Kidd and Johanna throughout the night, the scene is still very tense. Its one of the few bona fide shoot-outs in the movie and Greengrass uses his considerable action skill to make it powerful with distinct stages to the gunfight, as Johanna comes up with an ingenious solution to take the bad guys out.
Kidd’s odd job of reading newspapers to the unwashed masses may be what the title of the film is referring to, however, the core story is about the burdening relationship between the two. There is one very good sequence when Kidd’s newspaper reading job lands him in a tricky situation. An evil, bloodthirsty town leader Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy, providing a truly hateful sneering baddie) tells Kidd he wants him to read Farley’s local propaganda about killing Indians, which is a problem since Johanna speaks like a Native in a town of killer racists. Kidd’s solution shows why it is important to speak the truth not the fake news of despots. It’s a bit heavy handed symbolism but heavy handed symbolism works in the Western genre. After all the travels, the final bit of movie offers some surprisingly emotional moments as Kidd and Johanna figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. Sappy, but it feels earned.
The News of the World may take a few too many silent long sullen glances at the horizon and traffic in a few creaky genre clichés, but it’s done elegantly and with skill. This is an old timey Western story that has a significant amount of heart underneath the true grit.
News of the World
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks Helena Zengel and Tom Astor