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Review: News of the World

April 24, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

2021 Academy Award nominee for Best Cinematography (Dariusz Wolski), Best Original Score (James Newton Howard), Best Production Design and Best Sound

A star vehicle for Tom Hanks that really capitalizes on his calming onscreen presence, News of the World is a Western that could best be described as a good, old fashioned movie, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. There is a comfort to it, like watching a classic John Wayne movie that you find on TV.

The film is set in Texas several years after the end of the Civil War, and follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Civil War veteran who nows travels through the American frontier reading from newspapers in front of anyone willing to pay ten cents. Kidd is able to draw large crowds, bringing news from Northern states to small towns that still want to be parts of the Confederacy.

On his way to the next town, Kidd comes across an overturned wagon on the side of the road, and finds Johanna (Helena Zengel) amongst the wreckage, a young white girl who was raised by the Kiowa and doesn’t speak a word of English. With no one else to take her to her remaining family in Castroville, Texas, Kidd reluctantly agrees to transport the girl across the state, which was quite hostile at the time. Kidd ends up having to protect Johanna from a variety of dangers, and despite not speaking the same language, a bond and understanding forms between them.

The film also hints at the uglier elements of the history that underpins it, exploring a Texas that is still clinging to its dark legacy of slavery, with many still trying to rebel against the Union winning the Civil War. Johanna herself is stuck between two worlds, with ties to both European settlers and the Native Americans who are being displaced by colonialism. She was raised by the Kiowa when her German settler parents were killed, and taught to speak their language, only for her tribe to be killed by colonizers.

Based on a 2016 novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, News of the World is directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Luke Davies. Greengrass, who previously directed Hanks in the gripping 2013 film Captain Phillips, is a director known for staging visceral action. He does a fine job of gentling his pace here to capture the feel of a classic Western, while still delivering some suspenseful set-pieces. This includes a tense desert shootout with a group of men who want to sell Johanna into the sex trade, which finds Kidd running out of ammo and needing to improvise.

It’s a thrilling sequence, staged as a game of cat-and-mouse amidst tumbling rocks. The film’s technical elements are all top notch. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski does an excellent job capturing the sparse Western landscapes, including a stirring sequence set in a dust storm, and the production designers believably recreate the dilapidated towns that Kidd and Johanna travel through. The score by James Newton Howard is also a standout, thrilling when it needs to be and bittersweet when the story calls for it. The fact that all of these elements received Oscar nominations is not surprising.

Hanks delivers a quietly engaging portrayal of this first newsman on the American frontier. The calm, steadiness of his performance is matched by the stirring energy that he brings to the scenes when Kidd reads aloud from the newspaper, his impassioned delivery able to rile up any crowd. These are some of the best moments in the movie. This is very much a star vehicle for Hanks, in the same way that the classic studio pictures were for the headliners of yesteryear. Zengel is equally engaging to watch, holding her own alongside Hanks and delivering an excellent breakout performance that would have deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The plot of News of the World might be familiar, and the outcome is rarely in doubt, but the familiarity of it is also comforting. It’s a beautifully made film in every way, populated by textured landscapes, solid performances, and a steadily engaging story. It works thanks to the stable presence of Hanks, who serves as the film’s anchor, and it builds towards a poignant ending.

News of the World is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and a variety of Digital platforms.

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