News of the World

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Tom Hanks in News of the World.
Tom Hanks in News of the World.
Photo: Universal Pictures/Netflix

MOVIE:

News of the World

WHERE TO WATCH:

Netflix

OUR RATING:

3/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

A Civil War veteran, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kid (Tom Hanks), now goes from town to town across the wounded American South to recite public readings of the latest news from across the country. On his travels, he comes across a young white girl, Johanna (Helena Zingel), who mysteriously speaks only the language of the Kiowa American Indians and is left all alone after her adopted family are killed. Swearing to return Johanna to her biological aunt and uncle in a faraway town, the two form a deepening bond as they confront obstacle after obstacle as they travel the hundreds of miles across semi-arid wilds and often hostile towns.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Paul Greengrass is a filmmaker known for his hyper-kinetic style that is almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of hand-held, shaky-cam, headache-inducing action film thrillers. He's clearly a very fine filmmaker, responsible for highly acclaimed, gritty thrillers like The Bourne Supremacy, Captain Phillips, and The Green Zone – I just really don't like his style of shooting action scenes, and I really hate that significantly fewer fine filmmakers have taken his lead in ruining action films for years. Still, even a Greengrass agnostic like yours truly can appreciate the quality of his films, and even I was solidly won over by what is still probably his best film, Captain Phillips.

The idea, then, that Paul Greengrass was once again re-teaming with his Captain Phillips leading man, the inimitable Tom Hanks, for a deliberately paced, old fashioned western, was both surprising and welcome.

The universally beloved Tom Hanks has, understandably, become a beacon of hope and common decency in pop culture over the troubled past year – my favourite film podcast, for example, ended each show during the initial Covid-19 lockdown last year with a clip of Tom Hanks being re-assuring in his many movies and/or interviews – so News of the World comes with plenty of goodwill behind it even before you consider how brilliantly Hanks and Greengrass gelled in their previous project together.

On the flip side, though, this is, astonishingly, Tom Hanks' first-ever western, and it's hard to think of a genre further out of Greengrass' usual wheelhouse than not just a western, but one that deliberately harks back to the classic westerns when the genre was at its peak. Unlike, say, the Coens-ification of the material that was at the heart of the Coen Brothers' brilliant remake of True Grit, Greengrass has clearly made a decision to play it as straight as possible.

The results, as it turns out, though, are decidedly mixed. And, ironically, however much I appreciate Greengrass' departure from his signature style, a large part of what's wrong with the film is that it lacks any sense of personality in its direction to elevate it beyond the generic.

On the positive side, Tom Hanks is typically terrific in the lead role, and it's actually here that Greengrass departs most from western traditions by not having the hero of his tale (which was co-written with Luke Davies and is based on the novel by Paulette Jiles) needing any sort of qualifying adjectives behind his title. Hanks' Captain Kidd isn't a flawless man, but he's certainly no anti-hero, as most of the outlaws and gunslingers that populate classic westerns are. Greengrass may have needed to change his directorial style to fit News of the World, but Hanks acts very much according to type. And that's just as well because not only does it allow this goddamn American treasure to do what he does best, it provides a comforting warmth to even the film's drabbest moments.

And, sadly, there's quite a lot of those. The relationship between Hanks' Captain Kid and the very impressive Helena Zingel's Johanna gives the film much of its emotional drive, and it's wonderful to see a talent like Greengrass working with expansive vistas instead of his usual claustrophobic close-ups for a change, but, dammit, is this film dull. Mostly pleasantly dull, sure, but still, it all feels so rote, so predictable, and so episodic that there's really nothing to latch onto besides the main characters. And even then, their relationship plays out exactly as you expect it to. It doesn't particularly matter whether our heroes are up against the elements or heavily armed criminals; there's nothing here to raise one's pulse or even hold one's attention.

Still, for all that, if you don't mind your movies a bit boring, there is something comfortable and, yup, re-assuring about what is basically a sweet and nicely-told story about human connection –  albeit one with drops of commentary on the modern world sprinkled in.

Weirdly, though, even if I wouldn't exactly recommend anyone go out and spend any actual additional money on it had it not just gone straight to Netflix, I do actually wish I had seen it in theatres. Cinemas are simply better at holding one's attention, which the film does need some help with, but because of their setting, westerns simply work better on the big screen where you can get the full effect of the wild west and all the more so when they're shot as well as News of the World so clearly is.

As it is, it's a perfectly enjoyable watch that is comforting in a way that so many recent films aren't, but it definitely needn't be at the top of your Netflix playlist.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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