Review: “News of the World”

“Maybe, just for tonight, we can escape our troubles and hear of the great changes that are happening out there.” It’s hard not to chuckle a bit when Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) tells this to a group of people gathered to listen to him read them the news, before launching into a story about an epidemic that’s killed a lot of people. It’s almost impossible to imagine engaging with the news as a way to escape our troubles, but despite that relevant connection to current issues, “News of the World” is a film that frequently does allow the viewer to get lost in its western setting and the found family relationship the bulk of the plot is built on, even if it does tread on familiar terrain.

“News of the World” sees director Paul Greengrass adapting Paulette Jiles’ novel set in Texas just after the Civil War. War veteran Kidd travels the area, making a living as a news reader (someone who reads aloud from the newspapers). On his journey, Kidd comes across as young girl called Johanna (Helena Zengel), who was taken from her family years ago by the Kiowa people, but now her Kiowa family are dead and she is an orphan again. Kidd reluctantly agrees to take the child—who doesn’t speak English and often behaves in an almost feral manner—to her aunt and uncle, and the two encounter numerous precarious situations along the way that bond them closer together.

Tom Hanks and Fred Hechinger in “News of the World”

“News of the World” is a very different sort of movie for Greengrass, who previously has helmed primarily action-heavy films like the “Bourne” series and is known for his hand-held camera style of filmmaking. But he handles the vast landscapes and the scenes of quiet solitude that frequently accompany the western well here, while his signature style is still evident—and largely effective—in some of the film’s scenes of danger and shots where he uses the camera to invite the viewer into more intimate moments with the characters.

But while the film’s overall visual style is more gritty than lush, “News of the World” plays it safe with a comfortable story and setting that most moviegoers, and especially western fans, will be familiar with. Kidd’s position as a news reader draws some obviously relevant connections with the way that we consume news today, and manipulation of the media. In one scene, for instance, Kidd is prevailed upon by a powerful figure in a town to read his version of the news, rather than a more reputable source. But the film doesn’t delve too far into controversial territory, and this extends to heavily alluding to—but not further exploring—other issues of the day, such as the struggle of the newly freed slaves to exercise said freedom. As soon as Johanna appears, we know where this story is going, and there are next to no surprises waiting for us.

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in “News of the World”

That doesn’t make the relationship between Kidd and Johanna any less moving or that portion of the story any less effective, however. The film succeeds at making us care about these characters, who are both loners—Johanna has lost almost her entire family, while Kidd’s work is solitary and he has been separated from his wife for years—and the love and companionship that they can each bring to the other. It helps a lot to have two capable actors in the leads. Zengel is a relative newcomer but she is incredibly natural in the role. Her character is fierce, but also vulnerable, and she brings both of these qualities to Johanna very effectively. This is really Hanks’ movie, however, to the point where “News of the World” feels like a vehicle just for him that would fall apart without his presence or star power. Kidd is the sort of character that we love to see from Hanks, and that is perfect for him, especially at this point in his career. Kidd is gruff and rough around the edges, but there is also a warmth and charisma about him, not to mention the fact that he seems to have a moral code guides his actions.

“News of the World” isn’t outstanding or fresh. But it’s engrossing despite all that, and there’s comfort to be found in its familiarity. It’s impossible not to be moved by its third act, and to imagine a time when receiving news about the world was a special event, and not a fatiguing daily ritual.

“News of the World” will be released in theaters on Christmas day, and on demand on January 15. Runtime: 118 minutes.

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