These days the Western feels like a bygone genre, evolving more into a subgenre lending its themes and ideas to countless films but rarely being the full focus of the theming of narratives. So, when a western in the more traditional sense comes along it’s usually interesting to see how things pan out. “News of the World” is the latest American Western to hit the big screen and while it might not feel all too original or surprising, it does adapt all of the traditional ideas of the genre with a flair of relevant modern commentary on storytelling and the media. Based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles and directed by Paul Greengrass of “Bourne” series fame, “News of the World” tells and engaging story of one man’s quest to help a young woman find a home while also exploring a dark post-Civil War era where a nation was divided mimicking the state of the world today.
“News of the World” stars Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former preacher who now makes a living traveling from town to town in Texas reading the news and interpreting the stories to those without access to the papers. During his travels he finds a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel) who he learns had been raised by a Native American tribe and was being transported to her remaining living relatives. Rather than leave the girl alone, Kidd decides to transport her to her new home but finds himself coming face to face with Confederate loyalists, dangerous weather and Johanna’s own rebellious nature testing his resolve every step of the way. First it must be said that Hanks and Zengel are spectacular in this movie. We’ve come to expect that from Hanks and seeing him as a father figure, as well as a storyteller, isn’t really surprising but he does it so well it feels like this role was made for him. Helena Zengel is the real star of the show here though, turning in a breakout performance as she holds her own alongside Hanks in a narrative stacked with dramatic heft and layered character moments.
The scenery might actually overshadow the actors though as “News of the World” is simply beautiful to look at utilizing overhead and wide shots of landscapes that completely immerse you in the treacherous southern plains of post-Civil War United States. Every establishing shot is carefully planned to showcase the conditions the main characters have to manage in order to survive and progress and even the use of long, discussion-filled scenes where they’re simply traveling in their wagon on a roadway makes you feel for the length and tediousness of their journey. The landscape is also well utilized in action scenes, specifically one shootout between Kidd and a group of bandits trying to kidnap Johanna. It takes place on a boulder-filled hillside and you get a great sense of where everyone is and how, despite having the high ground, Kidd becomes cornered and has to get creative in his escape. You really feel like you’re watching a old west gunfight take place and the setting really does transport you to a different time.
Perhaps my favorite element of the film though is the subtext. While the growing relationship between Hanks’ and Zengel’s characters is at the center of the story, hidden just below the surface is a timely message that lends the film its name. Captain Kidd makes a living telling the news of the world to people from town to town. It’s his job to interpret the stories and we see several times that these articles don’t go over well with people in certain towns who feel unrepresented or marginalized especially in the post- Civil War south. One of my favorite scenes is when Kidd is forced to tell stories from a biased newspaper to a town overseen by a racist businessman only to take out a different paper and share a more positive story that the people enjoy more. Kidd’s entire profession is meant to be a representation of the importance of accuracy and interpretation in storytelling, especially when it comes to journalism. He refuses to spread false news or insert his own bias into his reading, urging people to understand that every story has several different sides and that no one person is suffering or benefitting the most from the situation. As a journalist myself and as an American having dealt with liberal and conservative elitist news reporting for years I thought it was a bold, relevant theme to work into the film and it even fits nicely with Kidd’s own journey as he slowly lives one of those good stories that he can tell to people to inspire them. If nothing else, this well-handled theme alone makes “News of the World” required viewing in my eyes.
Where I feel “News of the World” went wrong though is in its predictability and length. This movie is about 15 minutes too long and you feel those 15 minutes. It drags a bit and embellishes in its own beauty with long establishing shots that are maybe too abundant and side quests that, as important as they are to Kidd’s journey, often slow the journey to an unwelcomed halt. Kidd and Johanna’s experiences also feel predictable. I pretty much knew what I was in for from the moment the movie began as it was made clear the main story would be a man’s attempt to travel across dangerous territory with a young child. It’s a western staple, hell a staple of American cinema as a whole, and it plays out just about as you’d expect with endless tests to the duo’s resolve, conversations that help the characters bond and the somewhat stereotypical villains that you should expect by now in a Western such as this. As I’ve always said though, a film lives and dies by how it handles its clichés and while there are a few too many for my liking in “News of the World” it handles them fine and kept me engaged and interested in where things were going next. I would have liked to see something a bit more imaginative and maybe shorter, but the film’s flaws are balanced out well by the little things that make it so interesting to watch.
“News of the World” might not be the most original Western you’ll ever see and conforms to a lot of conventions, but it’s social subtext, beautiful cinematography and memorable performances more than make up for those flaws. Hidden beneath the surface is a great look at the beauty and art of storytelling and how perception can make or break how reality is understood without the movie delving into pretentious self importance. On the surface we also get an engaging adventure with plenty of traditional Western charm and two great performers who work well off of each other and give us a relationship we can root for through every inevitable roadblock. It’s a bit overly long and self-indulgent in its visual flair, but that’s a personal gripe and not necessarily a true flaw that should push anyone away from seeing this film. “News of the World” for me is a fine example of how performances, visuals, and theming can take an otherwise decent movie and turn it into something great.