Directed by: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Tom Astor

On the surface, News of the World checks all the right boxes. The photography is beautiful, the acting impressive, and the narrative fluid with a compelling and often tense storyboarding. However, News of the World is not necessarily a story that needs to be told.

Taking place in Northern Texas in 1870, the film, based on the Paulette Jiles novel, follows Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks), a man who travels from town to town reading the newspaper to anyone who pays to hear it. Along the way, he discovers an overturned wagon cart and a young girl (Helena Zengel) who doesn’t speak English. It turns out that her name is Johanna, born to German parents. But when she was younger a tribe of Native Americans killed her family and took her in as an orphan, and it’s been so long that the only language she knows is theirs.

Jefferson acquiescently offers to take her to her only surviving relatives in a town that’s a few hundred miles away, riding on a twohorse carriage that probably barely moves faster than they could walk. The journey proves to be treacherous with bandits and other generally terrible people along the way. Trying to get to their destination in one piece, Jefferson and Helena form a bond and help one another find meaning in their lives.

Director Paul Greengrass does a fine job with his steady narrative, but makes somewhat of a strange choice. He goes to great lengths to shoot this entire film from the sole perspective of Hanks’ character, but then headscratchingly displays subtitles for the unintelligible Johanna whenever she speaks in another language. Jefferson can’t understand what she’s saying so the audience shouldn’t be able to either.

Fortunately, the director is adequately able to find the essence of this story and temper any urges to cheapen its broad sentiment. His choices are usually prudent, presenting this easily-telegraphed plot with a surprisingly effortless emotional weight. However—even though none of this is his fault we’ve seen this tale plenty of times before and the end result is predictable from the onset, never once shying away from it or trying to convince us otherwise.

Even more, because it features Hanks in the starring role, you know what to expect. Jefferson is predictably likable with vices that are only going to be so bad. The actor delivers a nuanced performance even within his character’s cookie-cutter framework. Hanks picks and chooses his reactions carefully and has an understanding of the character that exceeds any expectations for him to do so.

Jefferson shouldn’t have this much depth, but it’s through the actor’s performance that we connect to the subtleties underneath. Jefferson is an inspirational person, yet never concerns himself with inspiring others.

Rather, he’s totally content in just doing his job, even if the reason why he does it is lost even on him. After surviving the war as a Confederate soldier, he views his existence as merely functional, serving his neighbor by providing a service at a measly cost. He’s been through a lot of heartache and, beinga spiritual individual, sees all his sufferings as a sort of punishment for fighting on the wrong side.

Hanks’ co-star, Helena Zengel, is the real reason to watch this movie. The actress, who was 11-years-old during filming, has the maturity of a seasoned vet with a believability in her conviction and control. As a child performer, the young girl is naturally adorable, yet never once tries to be precocious or play to the camera. The only real quibbles to be made here are small, but still stand out, such as the musical score by James Newton Howard, which tries too hard to manipulate the audience and our emotions during moments that we don’t need it to. However, the composer doesn’t fall prey to emulating large flourishes of classic Westerns, despite the film’s pretense, opting instead for reflective string motifs and bittersweet melodic lines while still using the appropriate instrumentation.

Hanks’ co-star, Helena Zengel, is the real reason to watch this movie. The actress, who was 11-years-old during filming, has the maturity of a seasoned vet with a believability in her conviction and control.

News of the World is definitely competent, even if you can find it all elsewhere. A Western road trip of sorts, the film doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre or the general “I will be your family” trope other than its newspaper recitation concept, which is admittedly pretty interesting. Nonetheless, it’s a sweet story, told with sturdy execution.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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