With stars getting ‘cancelled’ left right and centre these days, there are very few performers in the current landscape that have managed to retain their universal appeal in this current cultural landscape. Unless there is a bombshell that I have missed, it might be fair to say that Tom Hanks is one of the remaining big name faves that we all get to love without reserve. Having skipped both Greyhound and the tiny cameo in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm in 2020, the last time I enjoyed Hanks on the big screen was 2019’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood. Time for me to get reacquainted!
Based on the 2016 novel of the same name, News Of The World tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former Confederate soldier who makes a living travelling from town to town in the post Civil War Wild West, reading aloud the most recent newspapers to paying crowds. Kidd’s regular routine is blown off course, however, when he assumes responsibility for Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), a young German girl who years before was kidnapped by a Native American tribe and raised as one of their own. With the initial mission of taking Johanna back to the surviving members of her family, the pair embark on a cross country adventure that features all of the expected dangers and obstacles of a 19th century Wild West setting.
What I like about News Of The World is that it has a go at doing something different with the usual Western settings that we are all so familiar with, but where it mostly fails is in the smaller details of its plot and characters. By her very nature, the character of Johanna is one that does not understand 98% of the English language that Captain Kidd is using, and any kind of non-verbal duo leading a film is a difficult task to execute well. What becomes increasingly frustrating to watch, then, is the film taking shortcuts in the success of the communication between the pair. Much of the interaction between Captain Kidd and his non-verbal charge does not feel particularly authentic, but rather like pure exposition for the audience’s sake. As the story goes on, the level of understanding that they share feels less like a realistic connection and more like corner cutting.
Weirdly, though, it is the smaller character moments when the film is strongest, because none of the attempted ‘action’ sequences carry much weight or excitement. I wasn’t expecting News Of The World to provide Magnificent Seven levels of Wild West exhilaration, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the one extended action sequence plays far too long and far too quiet, while the other ‘spikes’ in the narrative fail to produce any real stakes. No matter what level of peril the pair find themselves in, as a viewer you never feel as though they are truly in danger, which doesn’t do much to keep you invested.
The film is at its most interesting and affecting when addressing the notion of Johanna’s ‘double orphaning’, and of the moral question of removing her from the tribal existence to which she has become accustomed and placing her back into ‘Western’ civilisation. As a concept, this is really interesting to ponder, but unfortunately News Of The World only really addresses it on a very surface level.
As Captain Kidd, Tom Hanks is very, ‘Tom Hanksy’, if you know what I mean! Hanks is often at his best when portraying a noble, calm headed, proactive character in a sea of morally lacking antagonists, and that is very much how News Of The World plays out. In many ways, the film might have been more interesting if Kidd was shown to have some of the cultural flaws that one might expect of a defeated Confederate soldier at the time, but it actively heroises him at every opportunity. In that sense, the entire picture feels more like something from the 1990s than the 2020s.
Having been absolutely blown away by her in last year’s System Crasher, I was looking forward to seeing how Helena Zengel would fair in her first high profile English language movie, albeit in a mostly silent role! In all honesty, there isn’t a lot for Zengel to do other than start stoic and distant and gradually become warmer over time, and she does that well. If you really want to see what this young actress can do, I implore you to check out System Crasher, a much more challenging and revelatory role.
As a pair, the two actors manage to create some very endearing chemistry even with the language barrier and the exposition heavy nature of their dialogue and interaction. The audience connection understandably weighs more towards Hanks as the emotive speaker of the group, and it simply can’t be denied that he has that movie star twinkle in his eye that draw viewers towards him in pretty much anything he does.
Overall, News Of The World is a Wild West drama that, whilst offering something relatively new and interesting in terms of genre narrative, doesn’t quite manage to execute all of its intentions in the best possible ways. It’s not a film that’s going to be remembered for anything particularly special, but if you’re looking for a Western that does something a little bit different, then it might be worth a watch.