Paul Greengrass‘s News of the World might observe the director’s venturing in an area he barely touched in his repertoire. Coming from the filmmaker whose works are associated with fast cuts, energetic camera movements, and dazzling thrillers (as shown in the Bourne series or United 93), this Western drama starring Tom Hanks (reunited with the director after Captain Phillips) seems a little too patient and placid—but not less Greengrass-y. Narrating the story of Civil War-torn America through a newscaster of yore, this couldn’t be less political, journalistic, and timely than his other films.
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Hanks is a former Confederate army-man, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who has devoted his late life to reading the latest news from town to town. His line of work predates modern-day news broadcasters in its portable form by reading the news of the world—from the “actual” news to some anecdotal news—from newspaper to a group of local townies. On the way to one of his gigs, Kidd encounters an overturned wagon and meets a stranded girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). Her biological German parents were killed in a Kiowa raid; and then, her foster Kiowa tribe parents set her free only to have her companions killed as well, leaving her high and dry. Kidd then decides to return Johanna to her closest relatives in San Antonio; but, the task would be a dire one for him because—not only she speaks no English and behaves more like the tribesmen—she has no real connection with the relatives.
Adapting Paulette Jiles‘s 2016 novel of the same title with Lion‘s writer, Luke Davies, Greengrass indulges in his thought-provoking political penchant through the power of news. It’s a little unsurprising, knowing the director’s journalistic background prior to his foray into filmmaking, that news plays important roles in this film (in comparison to his documentary-style narrative imbued in his most journalistic-heavy films, such as United 93 and July 22). More to it, it’s the power and honesty of news the writer-director values the most as he incorporates it carefully into the narrative, just like Captain Kidd carefully navigates his way into reading the actual, objective news to audiences. In the process, News of the World makes a poignant parallel of the Wild West to the Trump-ian America. The post-Civil War setting makes the notion feasible to draw comparisons. In the film, Kidd has to deal with a bigot leader opting for only news that favors him and his cause, which the protagonist sees as an act of degrading the values of the news.
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The story of how Kidd saves the news of the world is then incorporated into the road-trip narrative where Kidd begins to form an unlikely bond with Johanna. Hanks exudes his American Dad persona exuberantly as his character finds more than just fulfilling his task to return Johanna home. In the recent years where Western genre is synonymous to elegy; News of the World discovers a way to make the elegiac journey worth the while. It’s not in a fiery manner like True Grit remake that sees Jeff Bridges bonding with pre-teen Hailee Stenfield; this drama sees Wild West set-pieces as a supporting argument to fit the message of how a Civil War-torn country is a non-ideal, unforgiving wilderness. Hanks and Zengel‘s chemistry is the much-needed warmth in this kind of world. It’s interesting to see the latter, who just had her breakthrough performance in hard-pressing German drama, System Crasher, is unflinching before the former in one of his finest performances in the recent years. Despite the language barriers and ridiculously contrasted behaviors between the two, their dynamic is surprisingly good without having to lean towards sentimentality.
Greengrass‘ placidity in his most placid work so far might be overstaying the welcome a little. At times, the narrative might traipse instead of galloping through the enigmatically beautiful Wild West landscapes and the outlaws feels overly one-dimensional; however, News of the World knows best to navigate away from those flaws and focuses on its oddly superior element, the chemistry between the leads, that charms even in stationary position.