New today on Netflix if you’re anywhere but the US or China, Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks combine for the first time since the gripping Captain Phillips for a trip to the Old West which sees the star play an unusual part; a newsreader. But we’re not talking about the television kind; Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a man sombre of disposition, clear of voice, who moves from town to town reading the contents of the daily news out loud for those unable to do the same in silence.
Based on a novel by Paulette Jiles, News of the World focuses on a mission which evokes thoughts of The Searchers and True Grit; in tragic circumstances, Kidd encounters a lost child, Johanna (Helena Zengel) who he agrees to return the girl to her surviving family, even though they share no language; she was found wearing Native American clothing. Along the way, Kidd and Johanna encounter all manner of dubious characters, navigating their way past runaway wagons, drunks and deadly enemies; Kidd discovers what happened to Johanna’s parents, and his secret pain about his own wife turns out to offer some common ground in the face of adversity.
Westerns are hardly the genre du jour in 2021, but News of the World has an easy handle in Hanks; for decades, he’s been hailed as the James Stewart of modern cinema, and he makes something easily relatable from Kidd’s learnedness, kindness and compassion for his charge. Hanks has been on a great run of form of late, and Greengrass builds his film patiently around the relationship between the older man and young girl, well played by Zengel. And this isn’t some sombre fable; released from the yoke of Bourne, Greengrass is still a terrific action director; a show-down with three pistol-packers on a hilltop is a model of how well a dramatic gunfight can and should be handled.
A mature film for mature audiences, News of the World would have been an event on whatever format it arrived in; it’s a shame Dariusz Wolski’s studied compositions won’t be seen on the big screen, but a decent-sized tv should help appreciate these vistas. Kidd regularly promises his audience the coming of ‘change’, a regular feature of his talks which makes them feel informed, even as the West changes with inevitability around them. The familiar feel of News of the World shouldn’t blind us to obvious virtues; this is a well-upholstered, engrossing Western in the old style, a likely awards darling, and one of the most substantially pedigreed slices of drama served up on the hoof during the worldwide lockdown.
Thanks to Netflix for access to an advance screener for this title.