A modern take on the classic western, featuring an honest portrayal of Texas after the Civil War and an understated performance by Tom Hanks, a combination that results in modest entertainment. The performances by actors in supporting roles, along with the amazing cinematography of the Texas countryside, keep the movie watchable. Slightly recommended.
News of the World looks like Western in many ways. The typical elements of a western are present: cowboys, indians, horseback riding, wide open plains, dinners by campfire, cattle drives and so on. Those elements are tangential to the story at hand, however, which is actually about people dealing with grief and loss. Think of News of the World as a western in G minor, where the G stands for “grief”. (I’ll discuss the “minor” aspect of the movie later.)
News of the World is as straitlaced a western as they come. There’s none of the irony the Coen Brothers apply to their westerns, like True Grit (2010). (I have not yet seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). The movie is not interested in meta commentary on the economics of the times, like Appaloosa (2008) or Unforgiven (1992). Its tone is subdued and the action sequences are brief, in stark contrast to a movie like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) or Tombstone (1993). The hyper-stylings of a movie like The Quick and the Dead (1995) would make News of the World blush.
News of the World unfolds with slow, episodic pacing, and it immediately reminding me of Cold Mountain (2003). Just like that movie, News of the World turns its lens on the harsh reality the Confederates and the South faced in the years after the Civil War ended. In both movies, the main character is on a journey home. Whereas Cold Mountain had Inman (Jude Law) travel through the deep south in an effort to get home to his true love, News of the World has Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) travel across Texas to deliver a young girl to her biological relatives. Along the way, both Inman and Kidd bear witness to the devastation, poverty and depravity that festered in the wake of the Civil War.
Captain Kidd is not your typical western movie hero. Similar to Hanks’ role in Saving Private Ryan, he was called to war late in life. He was forced to abandon his successful printing business in San Antonio when he was conscripted into the Confederate Army. His wife died from Cholera while he was away for four years, and was buried long before he returned home. Kidd’s business foundered while he was away, so he decided to hit the road, reading the news to people for a dime apiece.
Kidd reads the news to enrapt audiences like an anchorman. If radio had existed in his time, he would be a perfect fit as a newscaster, hosting his own show. Kidd reminded me of Paul Harvey, with his ability to dramatize the news. Kid effortlessly changes his delivery to match the stories he reads, accentuating the humorous or serious elements as appropriate. Unlike a radio or television newscaster, Kidd has a live audience that reacts to everything he says as he says it. The dynamic between Kidd and his audience is similar to a one-person play or a stand-up routine. Kidd has the innate acting ability to bring stories to life, and could probably make reading the phone book interesting. These scenes are a showpiece for Hanks’ easygoing acting style, and they are some of the best in the movie.
One morning, while heading out of town, he comes across an overturned stagecoach and a hanged man. He finds a young girl who doesn’t speak English. Her paperwork says that her name is Johanna, and that she was being taken to relatives in Castroville. Blue coats (a.k.a. Union soldiers) arrive and question Kidd, and he calmly explains the situation. They tell him to take the girl to Red River, where he can turn the girl over to the military’s Indian agent. Unfortunately, the agent is north of the river and won’t be back for three months.
After a failed attempt to have the girl stay with some friends in town, Kidd decides to take Johanna to Castroville himself, a 400 mile trip. Their journey is a vehicle for the movie to explore the socio-economic problems specific to Texas in 1870: the increasingly frequent cycle of violence between settlers and Native Americans, the forced displacement of Native Americans by the military and the destructive effects of commercial buffalo hide tanning.
Throughout News of the World, Kidd serves as a stand-in for today’s enlightened audiences, providing a requisite look of embarrassment and/or disgust at what he experiences. The problems I mentioned above are definitely looked upon more harshly today than they were when westerns were one of the most popular movie genres. Today, westerns have the difficult task of presenting an honest portrayal of the times while at the same time presenting a modicum of entertainment. While News of the World is honest and moderately entertaining, those expecting a riveting, feel-good western will likely be disappointed.
At the beginning of this review, I said that News of the World was a western in G minor, where the “G” stood for the shared grief between Kidd and Johanna. The “minor” designation is how I would describe Hanks’ acting in this movie. Hanks is OK here, but nothing about his performance stood out. Aside from the scenes where Kidd reads the news, I felt like his character merely coexisted with the other characters. I have to believe that Hanks chose to play Kidd as subdued and relatively humorless as a way of showing how damaged Kidd was from his experiences in the war, as well as how closed off Kidd is emotionally from the world over the death of his wife. Hanks is not at his best when he internalizes his emotions. At several points during the movie, he seemed to be coasting, acting with the minimum energy required for the scene. Of the two movies starring Hanks that came out in 2020, Greyhound was the better of the two.
News of the World features solid supporting acting, including Elizabeth Marvel (Unbelievable, House of Cards) as Mrs. Gannett, a boarding house proprietor who has a thing for Kidd. I found the scene where Gannett enters Kidd’s room and wordlessly makes her intentions known touching and a bit humorous. Bill Camp (The Night Of, The Outsider) as Mr. Branholme, Kidd’s childhood friend in San Antonio, brings an element of grace to what could have been a throwaway role. Michael Angelo Covino and Thomas Francis Murphy, the actors playing the two villains in the movie appear to be having the most fun. As the former soldier trying to acquire Johanna from Kidd, Covino’s Almay revels in his immorality, even while his fellow kidnappers are dying around him. Murphy is also excellent as Mr. Farley, a man building a town around himself and his buffalo hide tanning operation.
As one of the few characters in the movie who smiles for simply being happy, Fred Hechinger is a breath of fresh air as John Calley. I liked how his character helps Kidd and Johanna escape Mr. Farley’s clutches because he was genuinely inspired by one of the stories Kidd read. The movie could have used more of him and that goofy grin on his face. From what my wife tells me, his character returned near the end of the book to marry Johanna. Unfortunately, the movie narrowed the scope of the source material and he did not come back in the end.
Director Paul Greengrass does a serviceable job with the material, but the movie never reaches escape velocity. His job was not an easy one, given that the movie’s big action sequence happens early on, and the ending’s emotional payoff is a predictable reunion between Kidd and Johanna. Greengrass’ style is a bit at odds with the material, his hand-held camera approach better suited to action movies (hello, Jason Bourne) than the contemplative story he brought to the screen here.
The true star of News of the World is the cinematography. The panoramic views of the Texas countryside are simply breathtaking. Regardless of the interest level generated by characters and the events taking place, I always felt like the movie was worth my attention just to admire the scenery. The cinematography in Nomadland made me feel the same way, in how the Southwest became a character in its own right.
If you’re well-versed in westerns, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t mentioned The Searchers yet, given that News of the World is probably directly influenced by it. While I am familiar with the plot of The Searchers, I have never actually seen it. From what I do know, News of the World certainly could be seen as a modern take on The Searchers. The latter has often been described as a movie classic, although I would think that opinion would be under much more scrutiny today than in years past.