'News of the World' review: The actors shine, but the movie could have packed a more potent punch

Tom Hanks makes his first western film a movie event.

December 18, 2020, 4:01 AM

Tom Hanks stars in his first western, and that alone makes "News of the World" a movie event. Just don't expect him to go on a shooting rampage. As Captain Jefferson Kidd, Hanks would rather educate Old West townsfolk by reading newspapers to them in exchange for a few coins in his cup. This Captain Kidd is no pirate. He's a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, traveling the Texas frontier around 1870, who thinks people could profit from learning about what's going on in the rest of the big, wide world. It's a concept that never occurred to Clint Eastwood or the rest of Hollywood's wild bunch.

Adapted from the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, "News of the World" benefits greatly not just from its two-time Oscar-winning star but its British director Paul Greengrass, a former journalist who pumped visceral excitement into three Jason Bourne movies as well as fact-based dramas such as "United 93" and "Captain Phillips," in which Hanks gave one of his best performances in the title role of an officer whose vessel is taken hostage at sea.

PHOTO: Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in a scene from "News of the World."
Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in a scene from "News of the World."
Bruce Talamon/Universal Studios

"News of the World," only in theaters, ambles along at a quieter pace. That is until Kidd comes across Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old firebrand whose German immigrant parents were killed when she was barely 3. Raised by the Kiowa and speaking only the language of that tribe, Johanna becomes "an orphan twice over" when soldiers slaughter her Native American family. Kidd finds the feral girl at the site of a wrecked wagon, her black caretaker lynched nearby with a note reading, "Texas Says No! This is White Man's Country." Reluctantly, Kidd agrees to escort the girl to her biological aunt and uncle on a farm in South Texas.

The plot is a mashup of two John Wayne westerns, "The Searchers" and "True Grit," that can't match either in emotional impact. There is no suspense in learning that Kidd and Johanna form a lasting bond, even without a common language. This is Tom Hanks, people, he will always do the right thing. That includes letting Zengel -- a remarkable find -- steal every scene she's in. The film comes down to scenes of their growing attachment broken with sudden bursts of violence. In the pulse-quickening highlight, Kidd and the girl outwit Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) and his thugs who want Kidd dead for refusing to sell his charge into sexual bondage. As if.

PHOTO: Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in a scene from "News of the World."
Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in a scene from "News of the World."
Bruce Talamon/Universal Studios

Later, at a settlement of outlaws, Kidd is ordered by the leader, Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), to read his personal manifesto of hate against Indians, Mexicans and Black people. Kidd's dissent sets off an escape with the help of John Calley, a reformed Farley follower played by Fred Hechinger in a standout performance so good you'll want to remember his name.

The actors all shine. I only wish the film had done more with the theme of journalism as a source of fact or propaganda. The subtleties of how Kidd reads certain articles suggest the power of interpretation to connect or divide. Sound familiar? It's meant to. Instead, Greengrass takes the predictable path to a child and father-figure conclusion you can see coming for miles. There's no arguing that Hanks and Zengel make compelling company. Still, the feeling persists that "News of the World" -- though brimming with visual beauty and quiet grace -- could have packed a more potent punch if it had risked more and cut deeper.

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