Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels from town to town across the old west reading newspapers for anyone who will pay ten cents and listen. He commands the respect of little halls full of people as they gather to hear his voice recount the news of the world. One day he happens upon a young girl who calls herself Cicada (Helena Zengel). Twice orphaned, she is lost to the wilderness with no one to take her in. King decides to reunite her with the only family she has left. Together they depart on a perilous journey through a mythological landscape teeming with dangerous encounters and opportunities for introspection.
The greatest strengths of Greengrass’ are it’s two lead performers. Helena Zengel is fantastic as Cicada. She’s anguished and frustrated but never over-the-top or unconvincing. Tom Hanks, meanwhile, is at his very best when softly but authoritatively recounting his news stories to a captive audience but is also convincing as the wounded old soldier who learns to reinvest in his life following a personal travesty. It is a shame that these two aspects of his character never quite connect, thematically or otherwise.
News of the World promises a new perspective on the old west. Perhaps an enlivened vision of Kevin Costner’s snoozefest The Postman. A film in which information is a vital resource, in which the truth can liberate people from the harsh realities of their daily lives both through escapism and through example. In a key sequence a village of oppressed workers are inspired to revolution of sorts by one of Kidd’s stories. It’s a fairly abrupt turnaround for the people, one which could have benefitted from more time to develop.
Perhaps if Hanks were more of a storyteller away from the stage. As a man who reads newspapers as a profession, you’d think that he’d be more inclined to illustrative examples in his dealings with characters around him. Instead he’s a gruff man of few words, who’s key conflict is with the young girl he has taken as a charge and the conflict is one of communication. The two discover a mutual respect through their shared experiences of perilous situations. The love of storytelling is there, but feels superficial. The film is more concerned with a very sentimental story of cross generational understanding, which is far more conventional.
It’s undeniable that the film features remarkable sequences of tension and action, clearly Greengrass’ comfort zone. His customary shakey cam is thankfully mostly absent here and the editing emphasises clarity. There are however some very poor examples of CGI which feel typically egregious in a western. You can’t help but invoke the giants of cinema when you feature a sweeping natural landscape and to populate this landscape with digitally enhanced elements feels somehow blasphemous. It’s also somewhat inexplicable in places. Was it so hard to push a big rock down a hill and film the results?
There’s a lot to enjoy in News of the World. It’s a very personal and intimate story told on a grand scale. If it’s overly sentimental and a little simple in places (the antagonists are of the senseless malicious type to be found in far trashier fare) it’s easily forgiven for how compelling the narrative proves. What is harder to forgive is that the enticing central premise of a man travelling from town to town spreading news with the power to unite a fractured and suffering people is side-lined in favour of an all too familiar western yarn.