Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a Union man, and he’s got a signed oath to prove it. Kidd carries it wherever he goes, and where he goes, he brings the news.
Kidd’s beat is Texas, and he rides from town to town with newspapers in tow. Anyone with ten cents and the time to listen can hear him read the news of the world. Tom Hanks, who plays Kidd, relishes these scenes of oration and performance. Indeed, they are the best part of News of the World. Not that the rest of the movie is bad, per se, it’s just that sometimes very tall things can make their surroundings look very small.
Based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, News of the World looks like a western but sniffs more like a period drama. Director Paul Greengrass, who co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies, imbues News of the World with allusions to modern-day politics while maintaining a focus on personal conflicts.
Set in 1870, five years after the Civil War—or the War of Northern Aggression, as it’s called ’round these parts—the United States remains deeply divided. The fighting continues, but mostly through small skirmishes. Kidd hopes that the news might bring unity, pleading: At some point, we must stop fighting. But the man Kidd tells this to has little interest in doing so. He has too much. Too much land, too much wealth, too many people, too much waste, you name it. He even has his own newspaper, fully illustrated, written, edited, and printed by him about him. He’s his own biggest fan.
That man, Durand (Christopher Hagen), supplies to conflict for the second act, a trio of rapists supply the conflict for the first, and a dust storm brings home the third. If that sounds a little underwhelming, you’d be right. The plot kicks into gear with the appearance of Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), a young girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and mocha freckles. She’s the daughter of German immigrants slaughtered by the Kiowa tribe. They took Johanna, renamed her Cicada, and raised her as their own. A series of off-screen events left Johanna orphaned once more, which is how Kidd came upon her.
Kidd vows to return Johanna to her German aunt and uncle while also finding a way to communicate with her. He succeeds on both accounts, and I don’t think that’s giving anything away.
News of the World is a handsome picture—photographed in dusty sepia by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski—but it’s also drama in a minor key. All conflicts are external, and no character undergoes an arc: Kidd starts the movie a good guy and finishes it a slightly better guy. The villains are villainous, the Native Americas are practically nonexistent, and the modern-day parallels are surface level. That leaves us with the landscape (stunning), Hank’s orations (delightful), and Zengle’s mostly-silent performance (impressive). That might be enough.
News of the World (2020)
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles
Produced by Gary Goetzman, Gregory Goodman, Gail Mutrux
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Michael Angelo Covino, Mare Winningham
Universal Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 118 minutes, Opens in theaters (where available) Dec. 25, 2020, streaming on Netflix in 2021.