4 out of 5 stars

Paul Greengrass is best known for intelligent thrillers often based on true stories, like Bloody Sunday (2002), United 93 (2006), and Captain Phillips (2013). News of the World, however, is decidedly less immediately engaging than Greengrass’s usual offerings, even drifting close to dullness at times. But it’s also a thoughtful film that packages interesting ideas in an attractive wrapping, aided by excellent performances, even if the central story is thin and the moments of real drama are few.

It takes place over a period of weeks in 1870, long enough after the end of the American Civil War that a kind of normality’s descended again on the defeated Confederacy—including Texas, where it’s set—but still close enough to the conflict that social, psychological, and personal wounds fester. Among them for former Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) are the collapse of his printing business in San Antonio and the death of his wife, from cholera, while he was away at war.

Together, these losses have driven him to a new and lonely life. As a “newsreader”, he makes a living delivering public readings from the newspapers of the nation and even the world, charging audiences a dime each and constantly travelling “town to town” to find new ones. The word “road” occurs frequently in News of the World, reminding us of his rootlessness.

Not so much rootless as uprooted is young Johanna (an outstanding Helena Zengel), a girl of about 12 whom Kidd encounters cowering in the woods as he makes his slow way to his next performance. Her settler parents were killed years ago by Kiowa Indians, who took her and raised her in their culture, but more recently she fell into the hands of the Union army, which intended to return her to relatives. And, in her latest trauma, the black Union soldier transporting her was set upon and lynched. ‘Texas Says No! This Is A White Man’s Country‘, read a handbill on his body.

Kidd has no choice but to take her temporarily under his wing, and although he tries to unload her onto the army as soon as possible, he soon realises he’ll have to accompany Johanna to her relatives himself. The rest of the movie follows their trek across Texas and the dangers they face, meandering along in a rhythm of days on the wagon and nights by the campfire, interspersed with occasional action. And, of course, although separated by language and culture (Johanna prefers to wear native American clothing, prefers her Kiowa name Cicada to her European one), their relationship gradually becomes closer.

It’s primarily a movie of people rather than events and Zengel, already highly regarded for her performance in System Crasher (2019), comes close to stealing the show from Hanks with a nuanced performance that doesn’t shy away from strong emotion (anger, fear, contrariness) but never takes them beyond the bounds of credibility.

Hanks, meanwhile, delivers his now familiar phlegmatic-essence-of-decency character, a troubled soul who takes it upon himself to soothe others people\s troubles. We’ve seen it so many times (not least in his just-released Greyhound) that it now offers little of interest, in itself, though he handles Kidd’s interactions with Johanna well; particularly the way the man has to frequently adjust his opinion of this girl as new aspects of her are revealed.

Making an impression in much smaller roles, meanwhile, are Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham as the Boudlins, friends of Kidd; the always fine Bill Camp as Willie, an old pal back in San Antonio, concerned for Kidd’s well-being; and, ,perhaps most of all, Elizabeth Marvel as Ella, a hotelier (but a more understated one than the usual western-movie brassy type) who seems to be conducting a low-key affair with Kidd, and is perceptive about his situation. “Your stories can only keep you company for so long,” she says.

There are also some fine individual sequences. Even if the overall arc’s predictable, Greengrass and his co-writer Luke Davies (adapting the novel by Paulette Jiles) often spring little surprises with the narrative mechanics: more than once, a development seems inevitable in genre terms, but instead they take things in a different direction (notably the Chekhov’s Gun given to Kidd as they enter Indian territory, which does get used, but not how one might expect.

A prolonged shoot-out on a rocky hill is skilfully handled, and there’s a long and atmospheric sequence in a small town run as a personal dictatorship by the sinister Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy). The town, when we first encounter it, resembles the kind of place in The Walking Dead that would be inhabited by cannibals. But not only does Kidd manage to best Farley, News of the World’s writers have him doing it through an unexpected twist on the news-reading concept, and the townsfolk aren’t all they seem either.

Gorgeous landscapes (New Mexico rather than Texas), an astute smattering of period language that adds to verisimilitude, and some well-observed physical detail (a cattle drive, for example) all help to situate Kidd’s and Johanna’s personal stories in a believable milieu. The score by the prolific and highly-regarded James Newton Howard, meanwhile, provides suitably low-key accompaniment without resort to western clichés.

There’s a langorous, yet oddly absorbing, air to News of the World: it’s an ambling kind of movie, a kind of feel-good inversion of The Searchers (1956) where not much seems to be at stake beyond the few occasions when Kidd and Johanna are threatened directly. In part this is doubtless because it’s so obvious where their relationship will end up, but perhaps it’s also because we are so used to westerns dealing in big themes and mythic characters that their absence here is disconcerting.

However, News of the World isn’t small in ambition. It can, indeed, be a little ham-fisted at times in striving for relevance—reconciling with today’s moral climate the inescapable fact that the Kidd character had fought for a slave-owning state seems to have posed a problem, and the solution is a rather weak, vague plea for reconciliation (which also has obvious post-Trump implications). “We’re all hurting,” says Kidd, later adding that “the war’s over. We have to stop fighting sometime.”

More interesting is the way so much of the film hinges on information and language, and their combination in the form of journalism. When Kidd turns the crowd in Farley’s town against their tyrannical boss by reading them the tale of Pennsylvania miners who rebelled against an exploitative mine owner, the movie’s clearly giving a round of applause for the democratic role of the press every much as films more overtly about journalism like The Post (2017). His own mind, meanwhile, has been awakened by exposure to so much news: he confides to another character that he wants to join a ship to see all the things he’s been reading about.

And News of the World goes beyond that to say that not just news, but communication, is important: Johanna starts to learn English and her first word is “story”, Kidd eventually learns some Kiowa from her, their linguistic connections precisely paralleling their emotional ones.

Given all this, it’s perhaps ironic that it seems (as the novelist Jiles has discussed in an interview with Texas Monthly) questionable whether newsreaders like Kidd really did exist in 19th-century America. So maybe News of the World is, appropriately, putting forward a fantasised, post-truth argument for dialogue and enlightenment…

But even if the ideas to which it alludes raise as many questions as they answer, and even if it is occasionally a little too gentle-paced, a little too reluctant to hit hard for its own good, News of the World is a seductively watchable film and a memorable one too: one of those movies that sticks more prominently in the mind than you might expect while it’s making its handsome, well-crafted, leisurely way across the screen.


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Cast & Crew

director: Paul Greengrass.
writers: Paul Greengrass & Luke Davies (based on the novel by Paulette Jiles).
starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Covino, Fred Hechinger, Neil Sandilands, Thomas Francis Murphy, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Chukwudi Iwuji & Bill Camp.