Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
Director: Paul Greengrass
Mood: If you’re entertaining kiddos and need to put on something reasonably family-friendly but with just enough violence and story that you don’t fall asleep.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie for almost a year, but now I’m dreading writing the review. Why? Because News of the World is really good, but also so simple that it’s hard to critique.
It’s not that it’s boring, quite the opposite. It just doesn’t push any buttons or challenge the framework of a basic survival-adventure Western. Much of it will feel familiar, and if, like me, you’re burnt out on brutally violent, depressingly realistic Westerns – it’s definitely a welcome breather.
This would be a particularly solid choice for a family movie night, if your kids are old enough for a little gun violence.
News of the World takes place just after the Civil War. Captain Kidd (Hanks) is a former Confederate officer who now travels around Texas, reading a collection of local newspapers to gathered groups for ten cents a head.
Between stops Kidd comes across a wild little white girl who only speaks Kiowa. The Indian Agent who had been transporting her was a Black freedman who was lynched. Kidd tries to drop her in the next town, but Johanna (Helena Zengel) is pretty determined to bolt.
This being a Tom Hanks movie, the softhearted Kidd feels it’s his job to see her returned to family and this odd couple sets out on a 400-mile journey.
But it’s not all sweetness and positive storylines, despite the predictable ending. There’s plenty of suspense, danger, and enough violence to earn it a (gasp!) PG rating.
In all seriousness though, News of the World is an enjoyable piece of storytelling. I laughed a couple of times, I teared up once, and I was clenching my entire body and leaning like I could help the characters when their wagon was careening along a cliff.
It’s obvious from the get-go that this father figure and orphan are going to learn from each other along the way, and survive any perils they might face. You never truly worry about their fate for more than a couple of seconds. Hanks is in full dad-mode, so you just kind of settle into your couch and trust him to carry you through the end.
Some critics actually said the “Hanks of it all” killed the movie’s potential drama (A.A. Dowd for The A.V. Club), and that it’s too “nice” and “bland.” I do get that. I was definitely hoping to be shocked by Hanks doing something crazy different that would shake up my image of him.
But News of the World didn’t claim to be a visceral, rugged Western. The tagline was “find where you belong”, which is how you market a tug-at-the-heartstrings, personal growth type of movie.
I will say that it could have been more effective at yanking those strings if we got to see some of the actual ‘news of the world’ going on in postwar Texas. Kidd learns that Johanna’s Kiowa family was murdered, but there’s little Indigenous presence other than a fleeting encounter in a sandstorm that conveniently ends with the gift of a horse.
It’s not that the story intentionally glazes over select dark parts of U.S. history – its lens is just narrowly focused on the journey of the two central characters. The only issue it takes a stand about is fake news.
MY only two issues with the story are:
- Kidd never once calls Johanna by her Kiowa name, even after being told that she has identified as Cicada for six years – most of her young life
- She’s shown eating like a ‘savage’ with food all over her face, as if not using white people’s utensils meant Kiowa people ate like toddlers – I’m hoping the point of that scene was actually to depict a child acting out to push Kidd’s buttons
The character of Kidd is perfect for Hanks because like the beloved actor, Kidd is a man who can calm agitated crowds with the right words spoken in just the right way – or stir people to action.
Hanks’ performance gives you bravery, tragedy, grit, and basically the perfect fatherly persona. He’s warm without being cheesy, and strong in that relatable way that’s so completely his brand.
Johanna, on the other hand, is an immensely challenging role that had the potential to make or break the entire movie depending on which child actor was cast. It demands a grasp on life experiences well beyond what even most adults watching this movie could comprehend.
Helena Zengel may have few lines, often communicating through screams, grunts, or just her eyes, but damn does she nail it. She alternates between an unblinking stare and flashes of such raw intensity that you fully believe she IS Johanna.
The talented 10-year-old German wunderkind also spent three weeks working with a Kiowa elder and a linguist to learn the Kiowa language and customs for the role. They were apparently surprised and impressed with everything about her.
Now, Hanks and Zengel might be the driving force of this story, but not a single role in the minimal cast was an afterthought. There’s an impressive group of subtle performances that quietly capture the somber, downtrodden-yet-not-defeated energy of the period.
My favourite part was when Kidd and Johanna were forced to attend the camp of shady cattle baron Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy). Lots of colourful characters that felt like a kid-friendly version of Hell on Wheels.
There’s a lot to love in News of the World. I got swept up in the story, and stayed hooked from start to finish. I wanted high quality cinematography and a happy ending, and I got it. There doesn’t always need to be more to it than that.