Ten years ago, auteur filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen brought a surprisingly sincere revisionist Western to the big screen over Christmas weekend. Out last weekend in theaters, “News of the World” offers a similar throwback film without quite the edge or mass appeal.
The Coens’ 2010 take on “True Grit,” a remake of the John Wayne classic, followed a grizzled U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges) and no-nonsense Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who escort a farm girl across frontier terrain. It garnered ten Academy Award nominations and wide acclaim. A decade later, two Hollywood veterans are employing a similar formula for their first Western.
Director Paul Greengrass has long been distinguished for his biopic dramas, including fast-paced 9/11 thriller “Flight 93” and modern-day high-seas rescue story “Captain Phillips,” which featured Tom Hanks as the eponymous freighter captain who must retake his vessel from pirates. The top actor has become known for dozens of real-life roles, most recently in this summer’s World War II drama “Greyhound.”
Now Greengrass and Hanks reunite for “News of the World,” based on a recent best-selling novel that unfolds in post-Civil War Texas. As a newsman who travels from town to town, Hanks’s character happens upon an orphaned girl whose plight redirects him to another destination.
Fans of American Westerns will doubtless enjoy this big-budget film, a slow-moving story with visual energy thanks to top-tier behind-the-scenes talent. Shot chiefly in Sante Fe, New Mexico, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Pirates of the Caribbean” series) makes sparse landscapes pop, in scenes spurred on by an understated score from composer James Newton Howard (known for “Defiance” and “The Hunger Games”).
Thematically, “News of the World” clearly wants to speak to current issues of literacy education, “fake news,” and even racial prejudice. However, the film’s sparse dialogue and lack of conflict leave its core ideas largely underdeveloped.
‘There Is No Time for Stories’
In the film, Hanks portrays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Confederate officer and frontier journalist who stages public readings of headlines for working-class families. His discovery of an overturned covered wagon leads him to Johanna, a ten-year-old girl (Helena Zengel) who years earlier had been abducted by an American Indian tribe. In a move everyone saw coming, Tom “America’s Dad” Hanks quickly assumes a paternal role with the orphan.
Through travel documents and clues, Kidd learns of her living family members and makes this reunion his central mission. It’s a premise used to great effect in “The Mandalorian,” Disney’s hit Star Wars streaming series. While this film lacks any hyperspace travel or aliens, it play on similar themes of connection and fatherhood. Struggling to communicate with a girl who speaks no English, the war-weary veteran lights up even at small victories like learning her name.
This minimalist story approach contrasts with the whip-smart scripting of “True Grit,” where young lead Hailee Steinfeld exchanged rapid-fire barbs throughout with her adult co-stars. “News of the World” leaves charismatic Hanks to capably bear much of the plot development, as mostly silent Zengel tags along with him to grimy Old West towns.
People they encounter are carving out a hardscrabble existence following the massive death toll of the Civil War, which historians estimate at more than 600,000 men. Equal parts newsman, showman, and storyteller, Kidd uses his public news readings to educate and entertain.
By the film’s third act, viewers can tell the filmmakers cast these scenes as a metaphor for their craft. In the film’s closing minutes, an antagonist dismisses Kidd’s suggestion that his young charge be given an opportunity to read. “There is no time for stories,” the man spits back.
Perils and Perspectives
Such meta-themes—along with the film’s attention to issues of racial prejudice, xenophobia, and human trafficking—are reminders it springs from a novel written only four years ago. Similar to revisionist Westerns like “Dances with Wolves,” this drama strives to view the American frontier from multiple perspectives to take in a more complete story.
In an early subplot where vigilante traffickers eye Johanna as potential prey, the film’s depiction of the issue feels almost contemporary, ripped from current Pornhub-related headlines. Another central sequence finds Kidd entering a backwater settlement hostile to any outsiders, with an unelected town leader stirring up prejudice against ethnic minorities as the scapegoat for his misdeeds.
Bringing in another perspective, “News of the World” does not sugarcoat the girl’s loss of family members to a Native American raiding party. Nor does it romanticize the difficulties of frontier life, with flash floods, wagon travel, and shoot-outs depicted as perilous endeavors.
Produced by indisputably talented filmmakers and carried by a circumspect Hanks performance, “News of the World” has some charms as a window into the often-overlooked post-Civil War era. Still, if given the opportunity to see this one or rewatch 2010’s hardy “True Grit,” it wouldn’t take a duel with pistols at high noon to determine the winner.
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material, and some language, “News of the World” opened Christmas weekend in theaters nationwide.