Director; Paul Greengrass. Starring; Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Steve Boyles. Rated PG-13. Color. 118 minutes.
The expanse of the old west can be beautiful and also unpredictable. Some of the most interesting characters the world over are found in the nooks and crannies from town to town. Take Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks). Kidd is a Civil War veteran currently traveling across Texas doing a profession few people are aware once existed. He reads newspapers both locally and from around the country to illiterate cowboy townsfolk. An innocent profession until life is turned upside-down when a chance encounter on the road begins the greatest journey of his life.
After a successful performance in a small saloon, Captain Kidd is traveling to the next town on a forest trail when he sees a crashed wagon with a black man that was hung with a sign saying “We don’t take n—–s here in Texas”. Kidd hears some rustling in the trees and finds a young white girl dressed up in Native American clothing. He wrangles her back towards his horse and carriage to protect her when several army officers arrive. Initially tense, the soldiers let the two on their way. Apparently the girl, named Johanna (Helena Zengel) is a migrant from Germany who was raised by the Natives after they killed her family. By order of the federal government the girl is to be returned to her aunt and uncle back East. With little option, the Captain decides to take her to the next town and turn her into the authorities.
Sympathy and compassion are quickly thrown out the window when the authorities refuse to take her unless he wants to wait there for a month when the proper officer that handles affairs of ‘wild’ children arrives. Reluctantly, he tasks himself with doing what he believes is right and will take the child to where she supposedly belongs. The journey does not exactly start off smoothly. Johanna attempts to escape multiple times, including a desperate attempt to get the attention of a tribe across the river that could threaten their expedition.
A now ongoing road adventure rears society’s ugly head during a stop in a town when an outlaw named Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) takes a liking to Johanna. He offers Kidd 50 bucks to buy her, which is obviously refused. A rather thrilling shootout in the hills, including a unique way of using shotgun shells, puts Greengrass’s skill of close encounter suspense on full display. That is followed up by another sequence where the two are captured and taken to a town run by a disgusting human being who prides himself on killing Mexicans and scalping Indians. Another desperate situation the Captain must figure out. Several other hiccups occur and at one point it appears getting Johanna to her relatives may be impossible.
“News of the World” does have its flaws. The intense set pieces are all good, but there are so many that it can wear on you. They get threatened then there’s a shoot out then there’s a kidnapping then there’s heat stroke then there’s a sandstorm. It feels like how many things can go wrong that Tom Hanks has to somehow get out of. Similar to a movie like the 2015 DiCaprio Oscar winner “The Revenant”, it is epic but how many situations are we trying to cram in here. The beauty shots of the country are also incredibly overused. Yes, I know it is beautiful. But after the 15th helicopter shot showcasing the countryside it feels like “Yeah, we get it’s pretty”. Also, I love Tom Hanks. All-timer. But he’s just not quite the western star type. He does a solid job, and the role of a newspaper man as well as his relationship with the girl works as Hanks shines in those scenes. Yet for me, he just doesn’t fully pull off the rugged western character. Not saying he’s bad, just solid. No actor can excel at everything.
That does not take away from the fact that “News of the World” is well made as a whole. Every aspect of the production design from camera, costumes, sets, and makeup are top notch. This story goes into interesting issues that ring true to this day, particularly during a scene when Hanks refuses to read a propaganda paper and gives the townsfolk the real news. The ending is also very satisfying without being cheesy. This is a reminder of how important it is to help people stay informed so that everyone can relate to others. Within that overarching message a thrilling old west adventure pic sits in the middle to enjoy.