News of the World, 2020.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Fred Hechinger, Michael Angelo Covino, Thomas Francis Murphy, Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, Neil Sandilands, and Chukwudi Iwuji.
A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.
The headliner of News of the World may be Tom Hanks, but it’s every bit newcomer Helena Zengel’s movie. Aside from spreading the news, journeying across the frontier, and facing many perilous situations on the way, the latest from director Paul Greengrass (adapting the book of the same name by Paulette Jiles and co-writing the script with Luke Davies) is ultimately about two individuals who have had their lives ripped away from them searching for a place of belonging. The three-time war veteran and Civil War soldier Jeffrey Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks reunited with the Captain Phillips filmmaker) views the trajectory of life as a straight line, a belief system that’s put to the test by Johanna (Helena Zengel), the young girl he decides to travel across Texas with, in an effort to get her home safely with her aunt and uncle.
It’s not going to be easy when it comes to communication, as Johanna has been kidnapped by and taught the way of the Kiowa people for roughly 4 years. She understands no English and combined with an unkempt appearance and feral characteristics, comes to resemble more of a wild animal. This lends a fish-out-of-water dynamics to News of the World although not necessarily conveyed with humor as typically done; it’s a sad set of circumstances where both protagonists are grieving and coming to terms with leading aimless lives they didn’t ask for.
There’s a part where Jeffrey mentions working at a printing press before the Civil War only to go on mentioning that he was no longer needed and that the next logical step was to read the news as sort of a one-man show for live audiences that had no time to skim it all for themselves. Consider it television news before such a thing existed except without the TV part. Nevertheless, while Jeffrey is technically correct, it’s also probably easier to read and tell people other stories when the surroundings and next step of one’s own life have yet to be unpacked and fully realized. At one of many local stops a friend (played by Elizabeth Marvel) encourages Jeffrey to finally go home and see his deceased wife that died while he was serving in the war; to find that closure. He’s a man that needs to move on but simply kinds because of his simplified worldview that life needs to be perceived in a straight line with no room for reflection or analysis.
And part of why News of the World works so well is because of Helena Zengel’s ability to convey counterpoints to Jeffrey with gestures and body language. As an audience, we are privy to subtitles whenever she speaks the Kiowa tongue (and another language that’s somewhat of a spoiler but hard to avoid given her surname), and the sensation is there that she’s lost among two different upbringings. It’s not an easy performance to pull off let alone hang with Tom Hanks, but Helena Zengel delivers the kind of star-making Western turn like Hailee Steinfeld’s career-launching Oscar-nominated debut in True Grit.
In one of the film’s few but superbly crafted action sequences (Paul Greengrass utilizes everything from the vast landscapes to vantage points to a scintillating game of hide-and-seek with limited ammunition), Jeffrey runs out of bullets. As a natural reaction, Johanna uses her facial expressions while motioning for Jeffrey to use a bigger gun that she doesn’t quite understand is for shooting birds. Without explaining the whole tense moment, she is able to adapt and understand while proving herself to be resourceful, and even though there is not much danger or urgency (obviously, neither of the leads are going to die halfway in), it’s a smart, spatially aware, dynamite sequence that might be the best in the whole movie.
Exciting for different reasons is one of the news reading portions that could only be described as something eerily resembling the times we live in, as Jeffrey is badgered into reading hateful excerpts scribbled by a town psychopath, yet ultimately refuses. The conclusion is certainly a bit optimistic for the setting, but there’s a strong parallel to how vital it is to report the news of today in the real world rather than made up garbage. It’s actually disappointing that News of the World doesn’t commit to that aspect of more, sometimes cutting away just as Jeffrey is about to read some stories.
Then again, it also fits with the theme of News of the World doing a lot right as a film but nothing necessarily extraordinary. It’s consistently engaging, well-acted, and encapsulates multiple genres, never reaching narrative greatness despite its sweeping scale. It’s a good movie and welcome addition to the filmography of Tom Hanks, but more than anything should be remembered as the American feature debut of Helena Zengel.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com