Director Paul Greengrass is best known for directing the high-octane Jason Bourne films, which were defined by his distinct shaky-cam action. On News of the World, which sees the director reunite with his Captain Phillips star Tom Hanks, the filmmaker tries his hand at something different by helming a classic Hollywood Western. With 2020 seeing a dearth of new releases, there was interest in the film, which some believed could be a strong awards contender for Universal. Despite the pedigree of Hanks and Greengrass, this effort doesn’t quite get there – but it’s still well-made. News of the World is a standard Western with a predictable story, though it’s elevated by Hanks and Helena Zengel’s performances.
In News of the World, Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who now makes a living for himself traveling from town to town to read the latest news to the people. On his travels, he encounters young Johanna (Zengel), a girl who was taken by the Kiowa Indians as an infant and raised as one of their own. Kidd takes it upon himself to bring the lost Johanna back home to her aunt and uncle, but the two face a perilous journey as they make their way through the country.
Fittingly, News of the World sees Greengrass go with a more traditional filmmaking approach that’s far removed from his previous efforts. This is appropriate given the movie’s genre (there’s no need for a quieter character drama to resemble The Bourne Ultimatum), and it’s nice to see Greengrass broaden his horizons a bit. At the same time, it saps News of the World of what made Greengrass’ other films stand out, and stylistically the movie does little to separate itself from other Westerns. That said, News of the World does boast excellent production values, with David Crank’s production design, Mark Bridges’ costume design, and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography transporting viewers back to the Reconstruction era. Everything onscreen feels authentic to the time period, and that level of immersion helps make up for the lack of the usual Greengrass energy.
The script by Greengrass and Luke Davies (based on Paulette Jiles’ novel) pairs Kidd and Johanna as kindred spirits, lost souls who are searching for a place they belong. This allows for the film to explore emotional themes by examining the pain both characters have endured as they look to move beyond their tumultuous pasts. It’s certainly compelling material that gives News of the World poignant moments, but the plot itself follows a familiar trajectory that’s easy to see coming. This lessens the impact of the narrative somewhat, though News of the World is still an example of a well-worn story done right. It’s able to hold the viewer’s attention throughout, and with a runtime of just under two hours, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
It’s difficult to see News of the World working as well as it does without Hanks and Zengel. The former delivers another great performance, painting Kidd as a lonely man haunted by regret who is just trying to do the right thing. Zengel taps into Johanna’s sense of vulnerability, but also shows how she’s a child wise beyond her years. It’s an impressive, nuanced turn in a role that could have derailed the film if it wasn’t properly cast. Fortunately, Zengel and Hanks make for a strong duo that’s easy for viewers to root for. Elsewhere in the cast, many of the supporting roles aren’t warranted as much depth. Several of the people Kidd and Johanna meet on their journey are two-dimensional villains, primarily serving as obstacles that stand in the way of bringing Johanna home. There isn’t much for the other actors to work with, leaving Hanks and Zengel to carry the film on their shoulders.
Released in the thick of what is traditionally awards season, Universal is hoping News of the World has what it takes to emerge as a top contender. While it may secure some nominations (particularly in the below-the-line categories), it doesn’t appear to be one of the premier titles set to make a splash this year. That doesn’t mean News of the World isn’t worth checking out, however, as those who like Greengrass, Hanks, and Westerns will probably find something to enjoy here. News of the World is definitely a candidate for the year’s top “dad movie,” a comforting watch over the holidays. There’s a lot to like in News of the World, it just falls short of being one of 2020’s best films. It may face an uphill climb standing out from the other high-profile releases this Christmas, but those interested should still make time for it.
More: Watch the News of the World Trailer
News of the World opens in U.S. theaters on Christmas Day, and will be available VOD 17 days later as part of Universal’s deal with theater chains. It runs 118 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material, and some language.
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