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Review: News of the World Is a Preachy, Monotonous Parable of Modern Life

The film sanctimoniously suggests that ignorance or distrust of the news is nothing new, but rather the bedrock of America’s formation.

1.5
Chuck Bowen

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News of the World
Photo: Universal Pictures

Tom Hanks is still a spry and subtle actor, which was evident in Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but when he leans into his own legendary status, usually in the service of teaching us a civics lesson, he can be tediously wholesome. Hanks didn’t exactly play a character in Aaron Schneider’s recent Greyhound, but rather a paragon of steely American empathy in the face of battle, and so the film felt less like a drama than a glorified recruiting ad for the Navy. Unfortunately, Hanks gives a similar kind of performance in Paul Greengrass’s dull and monotonously preachy western News of the World.

Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an aging veteran who makes a living traveling the country reading newspapers to rural, often illiterate audiences who’re walled off from the larger world. It’s 1870, and the United States is roiling from the aftermath of the Civil War and tensions inflamed from the military’s campaign to exterminate Native Americans for their land. News of the World is set in the South, mostly Texas, and Kidd fought for the Confederacy—a potentially thorny detail that Greengrass and co-screenwriter Luke Davies, adapting Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel of the same name, bafflingly decline to elaborate upon.

As Kidd reads stories of the new federal government, the Southerners in his audience grow hostile. But what does Kidd, our protagonist, think of these stories? Is he a true believer in the Confederacy or was he pulled into the war against his will? And, if the latter is true, does he resent entertaining people who’re enthralled with an ideology that indirectly destroyed his past life? Kidd maintains a poker face during his performances, trying to keep the peace, which is logical, but up to this point we’re given precious few hints of his personal philosophy and how it shapes his life. Kidd is essentially a saccharine, apolitical cipher, offered up as a yet another easy testament to this country’s resilience in the toughest of times.

All we ever learn of Kidd is that he’s a nice guy who lost his business and wife in the war. Such baggage has ruined countless men and women, but as Kidd treks from town to town, reading his stories and visiting friends, his traumas are hardly reflected in the platitudes he delivers. Hanks and Greengrass vaguely suggest that Kidd is keeping his reserve of sadness precisely in check through his monk’s lifestyle, but this implication seems to be utilized mostly so as to excuse the filmmakers from investing the character with a rich inner life. Next to the fiery, complex heroes of the classic American westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Monte Hellman, and Arthur Penn, among others, Kidd is flatly earnest.

Kidd might be the most decent man in the West, but he’s alone and must learn to rejoin society, a lesson that of course reflects America’s own struggle for unity, then and now. The healing process commences when Kidd, in the film’s most haunting detail, stops to pull a lynched black man down from a tree—an action which establishes that he’s at the very least not as eaten up with racist hatred as the film’s peripheral Confederate sympathizers.

Here, Kidd also finds a child abandoned in the wake of a massacre, a white girl raised as a Kiowa whom Kidd eventually discerns to be named Johanna (Helena Zengel), and sets about delivering to her remaining relatives hundreds of miles away. Zengel is a striking presence, but Johanna’s trauma and alienation are as simplified as Kidd’s. News of the World doesn’t even allow Kidd and Johanna to work up a good steam of cultural conflict. As a result, there never seems to be much going on in the film, even when a gunfight or a hostage situation is occasionally offered up for variety as Kidd and Johanna drift through one impersonally shot, expensive-looking panorama after another. It’s as if Greengrass has abandoned his hyperkinetic documentary aesthetic in a seeming bid to become the next Ron Howard.

In the tradition of many Hanks’s excursions into the past, News of the World is intended as a parable of modern life. Greengrass suggests that ignorance or distrust of the news is nothing new, but rather the bedrock of America’s formation, allowing profit-driven strongmen to create societies in their own image by manipulating the masses. One can imagine, say, the satiric Robert Altman western that may have sprung from such a promising idea, though Greengrass sends mixed messages for the sake of unambiguous uplift. Kidd mostly reads human interest stories, recognizing that political issues might get him killed in certain towns, committing an understandable act of diversionary self-preservation that’s unironically celebrated as a defiant, even prophetic gesture. Plodding and agonizingly sanctimonious, News of the World is essentially a grandiose realization of one of Kidd’s stories.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Neil Sandilands, Thomas Francis Murphy, Chukwudi Iwuji, Michael Angelo Covino, Christopher Hagen, Fred Hechinger, Bill Camp Director: Paul Greengrass Screenwriter: Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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