For a film grounded in contradictions, “News of the World” is something of a paradox. It is about the power of storytelling but doesn’t tell an especially compelling story. It fashions a …
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For a film grounded in contradictions, “News of the World” is something of a paradox. It is about the power of storytelling but doesn’t tell an especially compelling story. It fashions a narrative backdrop that deconstructs Western movie tropes whilst anchored by an overly familiar principal plotline. It is a generally satisfying film that ultimately feels unfulfilling, never realizing the potential of its pedigree.
Re-teamed with his “Captain Phillips’’ director Paul Greengrass (also of the “Bourne” trilogy), Tom Hanks again plays a captain, this time an ex-Confederate soldier sojourning throughout the post-Civil War Central Great Plains. Detached by time and space from his family and former life as a pastor in south Texas, Jefferson Kidd (Hanks) now travels from one dusty cowtown to another as an itinerant news reader. Sort of an early iteration of an anchorman, Kidd’s nocturnal community gatherings are illuminated by flickering gaslight, minded by occupying Union “blue coats” and attended by the hardscrabble masses, downtrodden by war and the wild yet starving for stories from afar. Good news is preferred but any distraction will do, even headlines from “The Times of India,” one of several furled newspapers that Kidd carries with him.
While between stops in the Wichita Falls region, Kidd comes across a wrecked wagon, its lynched black driver and a feral white girl. Papers reveal that her name is Johanna (Helena Zengel), a child of German immigrant parents who were killed by a Kiowa tribesman, who in turn adopted the girl and raised her as a Native American before she was “rescued” from her accidental home. Unable to secure other suitable placement, it falls to Kidd to ferry Johanna to her German aunt and uncle in Texas, the girl’s only remaining birth family.
Hanks has often been branded a contemporary Jimmy Stewart. But until “News of the World,” Hanks had not broached Stewart’s formidable Western filmography, such as “The Naked Spur,” “Winchester ’73,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and more. However, “News of the World” borrows more from John Wayne, reimagining “The Searchers” if it didn’t end with Ethan Edwards walking off from an open sunlit doorway. Still, in contrast to Wayne’s bellicose, racist Edwards, Kidd is a thoughtful everyman in the Hanks/Stewart vein, haunted by a lost past and an uncertain future. Kidd, a man who makes his living with his words, finds himself coupled with a child who utters few herself (at least few which Kidd can understand, since Johanna speaks only Kiowa). But they are both wayward souls bound by their lack of home.
Greengrass’s Old West is not a mythologized milieu full of six-shooters and limitless freedom. The director gives us an old-fashioned shootout but firearms are contraband, carried in secret to escape the oversight of Union soldiers. Frontiersmen and women live under the thumb of Indian marauders, military occupation, and financial hardship, dependent upon land barons like Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who controls the townsfolk thanks to his stranglehold on the news. When Kidd wanders into a proto-iteration of Dallas, Texas, Farley corrals the newsman and insists he indoctrinate the crowd by reading from Farley’s self-published, hagiographic news copy. It is a not-so-subtle precursor to our corporate modern-day media, and Kidd’s response captures the way the control of information can be used to tame or arouse the masses.
But these tantalizing tidbits festoon a trite story arc. Native Americans populate these plains, but none are given a speaking part, hewing this already familiar rescue story uncomfortably close to a white savior narrative. Equally pat is the specter of the old man atoning for his past sins, and the scrappy orphan warming a sorrowful man’s heart. Given Greengrass and Hanks’s byline, you expect more from “News of the World.” Instead, it files a repetitive report.
NEWS OF THE WORLD
Grade: B –
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr. 58 min.
Opens in theaters on Dec. 25
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