News of the World (United States, 2020)

December 22, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
News of the World Poster

News of the World, based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, is a road trip Western where the genre serves less as the focus than as a backdrop to the relationship between the paternalistic Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) and the 10-year old wild girl Johanna (Helena Zengel). The bond between these two, which begins out of obligation and develops into a deeper, caring father/daughter association, represents the heart of the story. The star power of Tom Hanks, an actor whose inherent nobility creates an instant attachment to the main character, provides an important shorthand by defusing the possibility that Captain Kidd might have ulterior motives where Johanna is concerned.

The movie transpires in 1870 Texas and director Paul Greengrass, who is known for his attention to detail, achieves a credible approximation of the Old West. Kidd travels from town to town, reading stories from national newspapers, informing the locals about what’s going on in the nation at large. On one of his trips, he encounters Johanna. Six years earlier, at age 4, she was kidnapped by the Kiowa in a raid that resulted in the deaths of her parents. Now, the task falls to Kidd (in large part because no one else wants the responsibility) to transport her to her biological aunt and uncle. Unable to speak English, Johanna isn’t the most amiable of traveling companions. She perceives her current predicament as a kidnapping since the only life she remembers is her time with the Kiowa.

During the course of their journey, Kidd and Johanna establish a truce of sorts. They develop a rudimentary form of communication (he learns a few words of her language while he teaches her English). When a trio of outlaws in Dallas attempt to take Johanna by force, she helps Kidd in the ensuing flight and gunfight.

The film’s action-flavored Western elements are handled adeptly but the movie’s strongest suit is the relationship between the veteran and his young traveling companion. Had the movie been made fifty years ago, no doubt James Stewart would have played Kidd. To the extent that Hanks brings “baggage” with him, it helps solidify his personality. Hanks’ chemistry with Helena Zengel is easy and unforced. Captain Kidd is a clichéd character – the gruff ex-military officer whose hardened heart is melted by the plight of a child – but the performances of Hanks and Zengel as well as the Western milieu enable the movie to work despite its overall familiarity.

News of the World isn’t overstuffed with action but several scenes evoke suspense and one sequence in particular – when an outnumbered Captain Kidd and Johanna take the high ground in a desperate attempt to outsmart (or shoot) their pursuers. On another occasion, Kidd’s inherent nobility gets him in hot water when he refuses to endorse the tactics of a settlement’s despotic ruler. Rather than using these moments as episodic distractions, Greengrass allows each to advance the developing father-daughter bond.

News of the World is the second film this year (the other being Greyhound) in which Hanks’ reliable presence enhances the production. Seen exclusively through a narrative lens, there’s nothing special about News of the World. However, this is one of those movies in which the simple story is enriched by the elements that coalesce before, during, and after the production.

News of the World (United States, 2020)

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
Home Release Date: 2021-03-23
Screenplay: Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2020-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Western
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1