America’s Dad Returns in “News of the World”
By Noah Gittell
In these times of deep-seated distress, is there anything more reassuring than the sight of Tom Hanks, his face composed in steely reserve, facing down his fears in order to protect those under his watch? It’s a character he has been playing on and off since 1995’s “Apollo 13,” but in the last year, we’ve been gifted two such Hanks performances, first in the underseen “Greyhound” (currently only available for viewing on AppleTV+) and now in “News of the World,” a classical Western that finds Hanks in an unfamiliar genre but nonetheless on familiar terrain.
Hanks plays Captain Kidd, who travels throughout Reconstruction-era Texas reading the news to appreciative townsfolk. It’s a simple operation: He puts the word out that he’s in town, sets up shop in an appropriate venue, reads with verve from newspapers both local and national, and passes a cup for donations. Watching these sessions play out, a pattern emerges from his audience: Local news is met with appreciative nods, but any mention of the federal government, especially President Grant, is met with angry hoots and hollers. Maybe it’s just Texas. Or maybe hating the government has always been America’s pastime.
These scenes are the highlight of the film. As Kidd the newsman, Hanks gets to unleash his inner entertainer. In some of them, Hanks adopts a melodramatic tone to play up the tragedies of which he’s reading; elsewhere, he cracks jokes in between each news item and leaves his entertainment-starved audience in stitches. It’s a little like if Hanks had ever guest-hosted Weekend Update during one of his appearances on “Saturday Night Live.” For all the affecting dramatic work Hanks has done over the years, his ability to simply take charge and entertain an audience has gone sadly underused. When he busts it out here, it’s profoundly enjoyable.
He adopts a more stoic tone, however, when he finds himself committed to returning a young girl (Helena Zengel), who was kidnapped and raised by Native Americans, back to her family. Zengel has a commanding presence that belies her years, and she and Hanks display a strong chemistry that carries the film through its more prosaic elements. Captain Kidd shepherds her through the lawless desert, encountering a run of the genre’s conventions — outlaws, dangerous predators, and a sandstorm — that help to fulfill the genre’s modest goals.
Director Paul Greengrass, who pioneered the jittery, shaky-cam action flick with “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Captain Phillips”, films the proceedings with surprising restraint. Except for a tense mountain shoot-out, the film moves at a stately pace that replicates the rhythms of the bygone era.
It’s a genre that has historically been used to make political statements, from the reactionary westerns of John Ford to the revisionist entries of the 1970s, and Greengrass nimbly addresses modern-day politics here. The film itself is an ode to the importance of good journalism (which, yes, is a political issue in 2021), but even more cutting is the scene that finds Kidd in a small town run by a local despot who maintains his power by keeping the citizens uninformed. He strongly suggests Kidd only read the local newspaper that he publishes himself. Kidd defies his orders and reads the “real news” to the appreciative crowd, then has to escape town in the dead of night.
It’s all a bit scattered, but despite its uneven terrain, “News of the World” wins points for its sheer competence, a truly welcome quality in an unstable era. It’s always easy to look at; Greengrass’s still camera makes the vast Texas plains look sacred in their emptiness. It has a deep and abiding respect for the institutions that hold civilization together, and these themes are ably embodied by a movie star who has guided viewers through almost 40 years and six presidential administrations. Asking for perfection from a film like this is unreasonable. “News of the World” just wants to give a weary electorate a much-needed hug.
“News of the World” is available to stream everywhere on January 15.