In “News of the World,” adapted from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel with the same name, Tom Hanks reunites with director Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “22 July” and “Green Zone”) after “Captain Phillips” and plays Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran in Texas in 1870. Now making a living as a newsreader, Kidd travels alone from one Texas town to another and read the news to the locals to help them learn what’s going on in other states, or even the world. The job makes him an informer who decide what to read and how to deliver the messages, and it also equips him the skill to read people insightfully.

One day on the trail, he passes through a slaughter scene where a black traveler is hanged from the tree and a little girl (Helena Zengel, everyone should watch her excellent performance in “System Crasher” last year) hides in the woods next to the scene. Kidd names the girl Johanna and decides to escort her to safety.

From here, you can easily predict where “News of the World,” the most traditional work in director Greengrass’s career, will head to. He structures the film episodically with encounters jump in one by one. Even the story is predictable, Greengrass is still able to put you on the edge of the seat by bringing his extraordinary skill of building action sequences with tension and excitement, such as a deadly shootout with outlaws (led by Michael Angelo Covino) who want to buy Johanna and sell her as a child prostitute.

And thanks to the top craftsmen behind the camera that bring the best of Greengrass, including production designer David Crank (“The Master” and “Knives Out”), costume designer Mark Bridges (“There Will Be Blood,” “Phantom Thread” and “Joker”), cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Ridley Scott’s long term collaborator since “Prometheus”), editor William Goldenberg (“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “The Imitation Game”), and James Newton Howard (“King Kong” and “The Dark Knight”) who creates his most impressive score in recent years. These talented artists together bring the warmth and moving emotion into this gorgeous Western film that throws back to the era of “The Searchers” and “True Grit.”

Hanks is not only one of the most reliable public figures in American history, but also one of the favorite actors in awards season. But, surprisingly, before his recent Oscar nomination in 2020 for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” his most recent nomination was 2001 for “Cast Away” 19 years earlier. Hanks’ performance becomes subtle and less “show off” compared to his performances in “Forrest Gump” or “Philadelphia” in the 90s, which may be the reason why he doesn’t get too much recognition from Academy members over the years. In “News of the World,” he’s able to find the tiniest gestures that define his character, and he has the gift to make these small moments compelling to watch. Kidd is a veteran with trauma, a widower with grief, and a newsreader with dignity. His news reading is entertaining but never losses its educational purpose and morality. 

Kidd’s characteristic allows Greengrass to speak to 2020 from the film sets in 1870. When Kidd visits an isolated Southern town where people has not yet healed from Civil War, Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), a powerful person in town, forces Kidd to read his propaganda paper (or someone will call it fake news nowadays) that spread the hatred against black people and Indian and offer white people privilege in the area. The nation and people are hurt from the polarization, and a decent man is trying to bring everything back together. The message is very clear as a deadly pandemic is outbreaking, racial tension and violence are happening, and the country is never being this broken as ever.

“News of the World,” with this context, is a little disappointing when the film circles back to the predictable “father-and-daughter-figure” adventure. Hanks and Zengel both shine on screen, but the film wastes its potential to go deeper by taking the risk to explore the balance of truth and propaganda in journalism (I’m recently revisiting Aaron Sorkin’s television masterpiece “The Newsroom” for the second time, so the topic is particularly getting my attention). Still, as a studio production that releases in the holiday season, the film is graceful and visually stunning with the works from some of the best cast and crews in Hollywood. It’s a film about two lonely, lost souls find each other in a cruel world. It’s a film with energy and beauty that will melt your heart while watching it. 

GRADE: B

Contact me at jiajinpin@gmail.com.  Follow social at @jjpin

  • Distributor: Universal Pictures
  • Production: Perfect World Pictures, Playtone, Pretty Pictures, and Universal Pictures
  • Director: Paul Greengrass
  • Writer: Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies
  • Producer: Gary Goetzman, Gregory Goodman, and Gail Mutrux
  • Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Thomas Francis Murphy, and Michael Angelo Covino
  • “News of the World” opens in theaters Dec. 25, 2020

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