Before there was Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Walter Cronkite, there was Tom Hanks’s character Jefferson Kidd. At least according to “News of the World.”
In the film, directed by Paul Greengrass, Hanks plays Jefferson Kidd, a former Civil War captain who now earns a living by going from town-to-town in Texas to read the top headlines and stories from the nation’s largest newspapers. Set in 1870, reconstruction is still a work in progress, with some parts of Texas remaining dangerous while others are lined with United States soldiers.
The movie picks up with Kidd on his way to a different town for another news delivery. Along the way, he finds a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who’s near a broken down wagon. From paperwork in the wagon, Kidd learns that Johanna was taken in by a Native American tribe after the deaths of her parents, and that she was supposed to be taken to surviving family members in another part of the state. Kidd is then instructed by officials to take her to reunite with her family members, which is a tough, 400 mile journey.
Despite having several scenes that are thrilling and suspenseful, Greengrass’ latest venture seems to have just as many moments that drag the film down. Not only are some of these latter-mentioned scenes boring, some of them don’t add all that much to the narrative.
There’s one point in particular where Kidd is in a county where the local strongman wants him to read what’s basically that era’s fake news, but instead the captain remains committed to reading actual credited publications. Other than a rather ham-fisted approach at commentary, the moment isn’t all that integral to the overall story.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a road movie. Most films in the genre have random, dangerous situations for the protagonists to overcome as they try to complete their journey. However, the best road movies have either something worthwhile at the end of the journey, or the characters themselves just have such a dynamic that people remain invested.
“News of the World doesn’t really hit its stride with either. What’s supposed to be the main core of the film is the father- (or arguably grandfather) daughter relationship between Kidd and Johanna. Yet the bonding and eventual trust they have with each other is hard to get invested in, largely because of how Johanna was portrayed.
Johanna speaks no English, in fact all she speaks is a Native American language. It’s not just the language barrier, though. According to this movie, the Native American tribe didn’t teach Johanna how to use utensils for eating, how to wear certain types of clothes or how to really interact with people at all in a good manner.
The movie doesn’t even have any prominent Native American characters, yet by making Johanna appear so uncivilized, the film takes shots at these people anyways.
On top of being problematic in how it showed what she learned from the tribe, making Johanna so over the top with how she acts made it difficult to really appreciate her as a character, which is a detriment to her relationship with Kidd. Having the main emotional core of the movie be hard to get into makes it ultimately hard to find “News of the World” compelling.
It was really disappointing that this movie had such little Native American representation, too, despite prominently trying to feature an Indigenous language and some culture.
I’ve been reviewing movies for more than 12 years now, and it continues to be a shame that there are too few Native American performers on screen, and it’s especially sad here since this movie could have, and should have included some more Indigenous people.
Despite having several issues, as previously stated, there are some good moments here. Greengrass is no stranger to thrilling moments and under his direction, the cast and crew put together some nice sequences.
There’s a scene where Kidd has to fight off a trio of men on a mountain range with limited ammunition. It’s a well shot and staged moment that keeps an audience engaged with intense action. This is one of many segments that really capture the rugged, Western-style atmosphere that does work to the movie’s advantage.
Tom Hanks, as usual, is also great in this role. Hanks is able to bring a stoicism and strength to the characters he plays while also making them caring and vulnerable. He did it with “Captain Phillips” and “Sully,” and he does it again here.
While he doesn’t completely disappear into the role, there’s no doubt his steady screen presence captures an audience’s attention and gives the movie some emotional weight.
“News of the World” has a great actor in the lead and is a technically sound western adventure film. However, what should be the most compelling aspect is lacking and its shortage of diversity is problematic. 2.85 out of 5.