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NEWS OF THE WORLD (2020) review

December 25, 2020


written by: Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies (screenplay) and Paulette Jiles (novel)
produced by: Gary Goetzman, Gail Mutrux, and Gregory Goodman
directed by: Paul Greengrass
rated: PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language)
runtime: 118 min.
U.S. release date: December 25, 2020 (theaters)


English filmmaker Paul Greengrass has spent most of this career directing films that were once books, albeit of a certain genre – either thrillers (three “Jason Bourne” movies, “Green Zone”) or ones based on harrowing real-life events (“United 93″, Captain Phillips”, and “22 July”) – so, it’s curious to see his eleventh film tackle something completely different, yet still within his proclivities. “News of the World” is a Western that certainly has thrilling and tense moments and definitely aspects of survival during a fractured and transitional time in American history. It’s also an adaptation of a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles that primarily deals with loss and responsibility, revolving around two different people who impact each other’s lives.

Greengrass co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies (“Beautiful Boy”, “Lion”) and the pair have adapted something of a parental tale, providing the director with a chance to add a tender softness to the rough terrain of the period.

In 1870, there is a feeling of pain and uncertainty in the aftermath of the Civil War, where many still hurt over the loss and are frustrated at the presence of Union soldiers dispatched to maintain order. Former Confederate soldier, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is making his way across Texas as a storyteller, reading newspaper articles for a fee to the inhabitants of each small town he encounters. Some know him from his past and some him from the war, while others meet him for the first time as someone who will recount news of the world, telling real-life occurrences from afar. Kidd hasn’t seen his wife in close to five years and has a weariness that matches many of the listeners he reads to.



One day, while making his way to his next stop, he is startled to comes across a lynched man in the wilderness and nearby a young blonde girl all on her own. She is wild, frightened and cannot speak English. After shuffling through nearby paperwork, Kidd discovers her name is Johanna, she is ten-years-old and is of German descent. He surmises that her family was slaughtered several years ago and she had been raised among the Kiowa people and was being escorted to Indian Affairs. Kidd takes Johnanna (Helena Zengel) under his care, in an effort to find either her next of kin or a new home for the girl.

With a three month wait for officials to process the girl, Kidd decides to travel south with her once he learns of a biological aunt and uncle living down in Castroville, Texas, some 400 miles away. Despite his kindness and patience, connection and communication with the child is a challenge for Kidd, with Johanna being understandably confused and apprehensive and Kidd unaccustomed to traveling alongside someone. As he and the girl make way on his wagon, they navigate a Lone Star state still in disarray from the war, and inevitable wind up facing the harshness of humanity and the perilous landscape.

Stories that occur just after the Civil War offer a most intriguing setting, especially when you consider news of current events didn’t travel as fast it does now. This makes Captain Kidd’s job an intriguing one, in which he selects newspaper tales of tragedy and triumph over adversity in order to inspire the masses that gather. He is a gifted orator with a passion for his work and hopes to use his news to distract the minds of his listeners and hopefully cut the tension amid the lives of Americans. Going back to a time when news was delivered in such a way is probably not something viewers are aware of or even considered. “News of the World” reminds us of the age-old tradition of passing stories on from person-to-person and because that’s so absent from what we’re used to it really places us in a moment in time that is overlooked, despite the familiarity of the people and places of the Western genre.



There is a degree of mystery to both Jefferson and Johanna that makes them fascinating characters to follow. He probably could’ve returned to his home where his wife awaits, despite his work occupying his time, but we indicate a certain reluctance to rejoin her when he and the girl receive assistance from a Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel, great in an unfortunately brief role), so maybe his experience in the war keeps him isolated and on the move. She starts off initially responding to others and situations with violent outbursts, not attacking anyone, but enough to be considered “savage”. That’s one reason why the first couple Jefferson leaves her with, Mr. and Mrs. Boudlin (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham), really don’t know what to do with her, but for some reason there’s something calming about Jefferson to Johanna. It could be because he sees through her outbursts and is a solid presence that accepts her and allows her to come to him on her own terms. She brings something new to his life for sure. Not just the fact that he’s not used to being around kids and he never raised one, but Johanna humming and singing in Kiowan and slowly learning English (just as he learns her language) is a new experience for him as well.

The two are tested throughout their journey as they’re noticed by shifty characters and treacherous weather conditions out in the open. The first real dangerous situation occurs when the pair are pursued by a nefarious man named Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) and his two accomplices, who offers to take Johanna off Jefferson’s hands for a price. As they flee for their lives, Jefferson must protect Johanna from their physical threat and ward them off by employing his combat skills. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Prometheus” and “The Martian”) shoots this harrowing sequence in a captivating fluid manner with some fine editing assistance from William Goldenberg (“22 July” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) and Hanks and Zengel really pull off the desperation of their entrapment.

Another standout sequence occurs in Erath county, where Jefferson and Johanna are stopped by Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) the self-proclaimed mayor of an area specializing in buffalo tanning who demands that his propaganda papers (which include drawings of how the white man conquered the buffalo and brought prosperity to the land) be read aloud to his sheltered community. Jefferson turns the tense moment around by letting the people decide whether or not he continues with a news story about how Pennsylvannia miners banded together to survive and save their town from the cruelty of the mine owner. It’s a sly move that shows Jefferson thinking on his feet which winds up helping him and Johanna get out of a tough spot. Add a sandstorm and a runaway wagon to those two predicaments and it’s no wonder the two develop a bond.

Jefferson and Johanna gradually become equally important to each other and Hanks and Zengel work really well off each other. Greengrass definitely benefits from having Hanks in the lead role here. Who else can embody a role that requires taking command of a crowd with your voice and storytelling abilities? It serves to remind us of his movie star status, with his portrayal reminiscent of someone like Gregory Peck or James Stewart (who Hanks has long been compared to) in those old traditional westerns.

“News of the World” is absorbing and quite engaging on many levels, reminding us of the impact of communication, but it is best viewed as a character study that touches on how differences can be overcome where there is patience, understanding, and hope.



RATING: ***1/2


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