News of the World feels like a change of direction for film maker Paul Greengrass; it is certainly a change of pace. His movies normally have a sense of incredible urgency. This is most true of his Bourne films but also of Green Zone, 22 July and still his best work, United 93. There are moments of building tension in News of the World but they almost feel out of place, punctuating more gentle moments as Tom Hanks’ Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels across the Western plains with Johanna, a ten year old girl who he has found and has to deliver home.
The location is Texas and the year is 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War and fifteen years before Marty went back to save Doc from getting shot in the back by Bufford Tannen over a matter of eighty dollars. Hanks is an ex soldier, who having been traumatised by battle, now travels from town to town reading the news to those that want to hear it.
Even with its historical setting the film has some focus on current issues, as you might expect from the man who has directed movies about recent terrorist attacks and police massacres that took place in living memory. The first news item we hear Kidd read is about a Meningitis epidemic that has claimed (pause) ninety seven souls (gasp) but even more than this it is about a country passionately divided by very different political views where some of those in power rule based on their own agenda and by looking to reinforce their position with fake news. On this occasion though Greengrass seems more interested in the relationship between his central characters and rightly so as this proves most engaging and gives the film real heart.
News of the World is a good film but it isn’t unmissable like the director and actor’s last collaboration Captain Phillips (now that was tense) or much of Greengrass’ other work. In as much it does feel like a bit of a disappointment. It isn’t generic but neither does it feel particularly new, which might be because of the limits of this genre and the set parameters it has. Watching it I did get the sense that I had seen something similar before and about half way through I realised where. Here we have a war toughened man of honour who finds a child and takes it upon himself to deliver it to safety. They transverse the desert in his battered and unreliable mode of transport, moving from town to town and getting into scrapes and a series of mini adventures. They are occasionally helped by a few of the man’s previous acquaintances but mostly it is just the two of them and despite being separated by having no common language they become close. I wonder if you’ve got there with me but it became evident that this follows many of the beats of a story that has successfully played with Wild West conventions. Yep, this compares closely to The Mandalorian and despite excellent performances from both of its leads, once that’s in your head the desire to switch from Netflix back to Disney+ becomes a little overbearing.
The Ripley Factor
By the very nature of her circumstances Helena Zengal’s Johanna is initially a fiery but passive character. Her vulnerability is the main driving force of the story but she always has agency and by the end her strength develops and wins out. Like George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky which dropped on Netflix before Christmas, the dynamic between the lost girl and the older man finding himself again in his mission to save her is actually quite wonderful. In balance, this is your reason to watch it.