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Review: 'News Of The World' (2020) Dir. Paul Greengrass

Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Fred Hechinger, Thomas Francis Murphy, Neil Sandilands and Mare Winningham


Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks take on the Western and adapt the 2016 novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles to showcase an often under-appreciated genre...

1870 America. Former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) makes a simple life for himself, travelling from town to town reading local folk the latest newspaper stories, covering everything from natural disasters, politics and social affairs.

On a ride out of Wichita Falls, Kidd comes across a lynched black man and a young white girl named Johanna (Zengel), carrying only her Bureau of Indian Affairs. Kidd finds it impossible to locate the right authorities to take her in.

When it falls to Kidd to help escort Johanna to safety during his work travels, he finds a great deal of hostility towards her. Kidd takes it upon himself to keep them both safe and protect her on the dangerous journey home...

The Western genre usually comes across in one of two forms. The first is a good old fashioned good v evil, often with high adventure, fast action and sweeping vistas across dusty plains. The second is a more sombre affair; often a journey of heart and soul against harsh odds, seeing the world open up before you and discovering something powerful along the way.

Acclaimed director Paul Greengrass and equally acclaimed actor Tom Hanks go for the latter in this adaptation of the 2016 novel of the same name. Hanks plays a peaceful, well-to-do former Confederacy infantry solider, Jefferson Kidd. He makes his trade reading newspapers across cities and towns "for those who have $0.10c and time to hear it.," bringing the stories to those who have no connection to the outside world. He's a salt-and-pepper haired (and bearded) man, much like a classic Clint Eastwood-style Preacher who keeps himself to himself and lives for the country he serves. He's a solitary, peaceful man but knows when to fight back if pushed.

Along for the ride is 12 year old Helena Zengel who lands her first mainstream Hollywood feature film after a number of domestic German TV and films. Zengel's suspected Native American Johanna speaks no English and is found amidst the remains of a sickening racially motivated murder. Zengel may be small, pale and straw-haired, but as Johanna she is almost a feral child of the wilderness; speaking an unknown tongue and not afraid to hold her own against danger, even if that is in the face of man or nature. Zengel holds her own against a screen icon like Hanks, and the two are both equals, and she delivers some wonderfully powerful moments and is a joy to watch as she slowly develops.

In a genre that defies using CGI and "cowboy" gimmicks, Hanks and Zengel shoulder the story and lend the film its humane morality that it always hinges on.

A six week horse and cart journey ensures as Kidd feels compelled to escort Johanna back to her only living family in San Antonio. It's this compassion from Kidd that makes him the best protector for Johanna when faced with dangers such as bandits seeking to buy the girl or townsfolks who simply don't understand her and want her out. That's not to say Kidd is an all-out fighter who is a crack shot at twenty paces, far from it. We aren't treated to the usual rousing shoot-outs and stand-offs between gunslingers in shanty towns that end in a flourish of stunts, and that isn't really missed. A thrilling example of this is Hanks taking on a small band of men out to take Joanna way, stalking their prey across a cliff-face. With ammunition low, the terrain unstable and communication still next to nothing, there is tension and a reality fronted about survival that is brilliantly tense.

Hanks plays Kidd as a man who carries his own demons from a life lived well, and who sees Johanna as what she is; a child. Kidd wants her to be safe and out of the dangers of a hostile world he knows so well. Hanks is the perfect father-figure to Zengel, at first finding it hard to communicate what the other is saying, but soon coming to form their own understanding and appreciation.

Hanks manages to make any character he plays in any genre, a character you just feel for and want to spend time with. Partly thanks to a career forged with generations growing up with him, but also thanks to his gravitas in simple stories such as this. There's no need to try and be a homage to previous Western greats such as Eastwood or Wayne; he can just be himself and that is rewarding enough for a vehicle such as this to suit his demeanour.

Supporting our two main leads is a crew that understand the genre and make this story a simple one about surviving the world around you and looking to understand others you may initially not, which is more relevant than ever today. They are both lost in someway, without being presented by Greengrass as simply "wandering souls"; Kidd has made a new life for himself but feels there is still part of him out to do good. Joanna wants to belong, but she doesn't know where to belong in a radical new world.

Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski makes the best use of the New Mexico landscape and captures everything you would want to see from a gentle Western. It's all here; dawn breaking over the horizon that frame our leads in shadow, dusty plains that frame horses as small as ants and isolated towns in the middle of nowhere surrounded by cattle, sandstorms and snow-capped mountain peaks. Partnered with a soothing, sometimes dangerous, score by James Newton Howard, this is beautiful genre to capture well on screen, and this is a solid example of it done well by those who bring it to life.

Greengrass doesn't go for tricks and slight-of-hand narrative to tell this tale, he simply uses the talent on and off screen. It's certainly a film that Hanks leads from the start. While the story is slow and devoid of action when you expect it arise, that doesn't make it bad at all. It's a slow burning character study and exploration of one man's journey from war-hero to private man, dealing with the consequences of that life and making the best of his time on Earth for those he encounters.

The best sort of Western for a lead such as Hanks is a slow burning one such as this. Full of beauty, peppered with danger but laced with humanity, it's a welcome addition to the genre.

'News Of The World' is a co-production between Perfect World Pictures, Playtone and Pretty Pictures

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