Nice but not memorable, News of the World continues Tom Hank’s taciturn but utterly wholesome protagonist streak. Yup, once again, he’s an old-fashioned hero. I’m fine with that. Let’s be honest. Do we need to see Hanks play an asshole? 2020’s been rough enough. Let me believe in my heroes.
But News of the World, the movie itself, is old fashioned to a fault. The material is rife for some real exploration of tough questions about our history, but everything is so sanded down that we’re left with a nub, a by the numbers adventure picture.
Back in film school, I took a film marketing class. Our teacher was a retired movie producer, Professor Goldberg. A real mensch. He’d regale you with stories about Hollywood back in the day. Remember that scene in Live and Let Die when James Bond’s requisite car chase leads to a bad guy’s car landing in a pool? One of the incredulous extras reacting to the massive splash was none other than my professor.
His class was unique. We spent the semester casting and creating a marketing campaign for an unproduced script. We ended up doing a Western called They Saw the Elephant. (I know. Terrible title.) It was a kind of bloodless adventure across America’s untamed frontier. The problem was that it wasn’t adventurous enough to be exciting and it wasn’t deep enough to be an interesting drama.
News of the World reminds me of that script.
Hanks portrays patently decent protagonist™ Captain Jefferson Kidd, a former Confederate soldier five years after the Civil War. He traverses his home state of Texas, stopping in towns to read newspaper highlight to a paying crowd who don’t have the time or the ability to read for themselves. He’s kind of a pre-anchorman, though his showmanship is lacking. He hunches over the newspapers, squinting even with glasses on, and reads aloud. People would pay for this? Well, yeah. What he lacks in chutzpah he makes up for in Walter Cronkite warmth and calm delivery.
It’s an interesting idea, following a man from town to town in the 1800s reading the news, but not much is done with it. Instead, Kidd comes across the abandoned Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old twice orphaned child kidnapped as a baby and raised by the Kiowa tribe that slaughtered her family, who finds herself alone again while taken back to her only living relatives after the cavalry killed her adopted family. Jeez. Talk about needing therapy. Kidd eventually agrees to take her through the rough, untamed terrain of Texas because, “it’s the right thing to do.”
For an era rife with perspective that isn’t often explored, it is disappointing that News of the World decides, once again, to focus solely on the White point of view. It stands out here especially because the movie brushes up against these potential viewpoints and then retreats, scurrying away as if afraid. Native Americans are kept at a complete distance throughout the picture even though they are a huge part of Johanna life. We only see them briefly through the waning dust of a sandstorm or slightly illuminated by flashes of lightning in a nighttime storm, but not one Indigenous person is shown in anything close to a medium shot, much less a close up, and certainly not allowed to speak.
The same goes for a Black perspective, which is absent from the film entirely. Odd, as this is post-Civil War Texas. One scene feigns acknowledgement, but it’s embarrassing in its flimsiness. Kidd nods at a Black woman in the audience for one of his readings after saying something vague about times having changed and, I think, acceptance of new faces. And that’s basically it for notions of race in the wake of the Civil War. You don’t have to have these elements, but they’re right there at the periphery, only to be ignored, so it sticks out like a sore thumb, a missed opportunity. An old-fashioned Tom Hanks adventure is fine by me, but this is a little too old-fashioned.
With the drama threadbare, what we’re left with is an adventure picture that doesn’t adventure too hard. Yes, there are the requisite close calls with danger and tussles with Mother Nature, but none of it is too memorable. There is a pretty tense shoot-out in the middle of the movie, which is mostly memorable for the fact that director Paul Greengrass, who pioneered the shaky cam “WTF just happened?” style of action filmmaking with his three Jason Bourne spy pictures, actually lets you see what’s going on. Though, can you just put coins into bullet casings and have them work like regular bullets?
The movie is pretty, at least. Dariusz Wolski, the cinematographer who has worked with Ridley Scott (his movies are dependably gorgeous) in the past, sees to that. He captures the expansive beauty of the great outdoors with a Lawrence of Arabia grandness.
And, y’know, Tom Hanks is always a pleasure to watch. His growing bond with Johanna works well also, especially as Ms. Zengel is good in the role, both ferocious and smart and, thankfully, not precociously annoying.
News of the World is okay, especially in a catch it on a Saturday afternoon and not mind kind of a way. But it’s not terribly memorable. And its old-fashionedness is less nostalgic than it is archaic.
Oh well. At least it’s a little better than that imaginary Elephant script I worked on in college. But not by that much.