News of the World Review: Tom Hanks Leads a Lesser True Grit

Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass collaborate once again with 2020’s News of the World, trading in the modern-day perils on the high seas in Captain Phillips for the rugged plains of Texas in a post-Civil War America. Though, at times, this new movie feels a lot like a lesser version of the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit, there’s enough substance in the film’s thematic elements that make it a worthy watch (and an easy candidate for “2020 Dad Movie of the Year”), at least the elements that it chooses to explore. The film often gets lost in its moments of narrative reflection, but Greengrass makes up for it all with his explosive eye for action set-pieces, few as there might be.

Based on the book by Paulette Jiles, the film tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) who rides from town to town and reads the papers to the citizens to keep them informed and tell the tales of the world at large. On his travels, he comes across a young girl (Helena Zengel) whose family was previously killed by Native Americans and who, in turn, raised her as one of their own. Kidd is tasked with bringing her back to her only surviving family, but the road is hard and the world is even more dangerous than he’d like to consider.

A major hurdle from the jump is that the movie takes its time in overcoming just how often it re-explains itself and the circumstances of its characters. We learn and re-learn the larger plot at least three times in the first 40 minutes as it finds its bearings in getting to the rest of the story, and as tired as that is for the first portion of the movie, the second half is where all the really good stuff is anyway. Greengrass manages to keep his cool as a filmmaker for this extended stretch of the movie, too, lingering on the characters and locales so we feel fully immersed in the 1870 Texas aesthetic.

There is a turn, however, and this slow-and-steady film finally kicks itself up a notch. It would be easy to expect the traditional handheld, shaky focus of action from Greengrass’ earlier work in these moments, but even here, the camera remains steady and collected. Even though his established style for action set-pieces isn’t as obvious here, it’s clear that these are the moments in the film he was most passionate about delivering. The performances that his actors bring in these moments even feel amplified by his energy, bringing the most memorable scenes for their characters at these junctures.

Tom Hanks delivers another knockout performance, despite the circles he has to walk in due to the script. The big surprise of the movie is Zengel, though, a German actress who plays the young Johanna and steals the show. Despite a limited amount of dialogue, the youngster and Hanks are able to develop an on-screen repartee that feels genuine and even conveys all the needed character information for the audience.

Despite the great work by its two leads, News of the World also squanders some of its more interesting thematic moments for the larger story of their journey. At a certain point, it's clear that the film is a re-tread of Apocalypse Now but against the backdrop of the American West, which offers it the chance to have pit-stops along the way where it can cut its teeth on timeless material. What it offers in spurts is a look at how the more things change, the more they stay the same. America in the 1870s was still battling against the hateful notions of white supremacy and the wayward paths that so many find themselves on in a post-war world. Funny that this remains relevant, but News of the World starts and stops its dissection of this after mostly one major scene. The war might be over, but the battles continue, except when we have to return to the A-plot.

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There are some pieces of its thematic material that carry on throughout the entire piece and are just as prescient. If anything, it's clear that News of the World has a lot to say, but not enough time to explore it all. At its core, the film's main message is about the importance and survival of stories as communication and entertainment, which it gets across. News of the World dares to emphasize the ever-relevant point of speaking truth in the face of tyranny and our ability to choose who we are over what we're told we should be; at least until it's ready for another action beat. Neither is a bad thing to focus on, but there's not enough of either.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5