News of the World Review: Bland & Predictable Oscar Bait

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Rating: 

4/10

Cast:

Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd

Helena Zengel as Johanna Leonberger

Michael Covino as Mark Edgefield

Fred Hechinger as John Calley

Neil Sandilands as Wilhelm Leonberger

Thomas Francis Murphy as Merritt Farley

Mare Winningham as Jane

Elizabeth Marvel as Ella Gannett

Chukwudi Iwuji as Charles Edgefield

Ray McKinnon as Christopher John “C.J.” Kidd

Bill Camp as Corey Farley

Co-Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass; Co-Written by Luke Davies

News of the World Review:

The film industry is one full of rarities. Sequels that outshine their predecessor(s), biopics that aren’t watering down the true story of its subjects, but one of the rarest is Tom Hanks starring in a bad movie, and while his latest effort, News of the World, may not be an entirely bad film, it’s certainly very disappointing given all involved.

Based on Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name, the story is set five years after the end of the Civil War and centers on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a veteran of three wars, who moves from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller, sharing the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, devastating catastrophes and gripping adventures from the far reaches of the globe. In the plains of Texas, he crosses paths with Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old taken in by the Kiowa people six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Johanna, hostile to a world she’s never experienced, is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will. Kidd agrees to deliver the child where the law says she belongs. As they travel hundreds of miles into the unforgiving wilderness, the two will face tremendous challenges of both human and natural forces as they search for a place that either can call home.

The story for the film offers a lot of unique angles not previously explored in the Western genre, from its specific time period to the fact its protagonist was actually on the side of the Confederates during the Civil War, yet it frequently feels like it doesn’t take full advantage of these elements or uses them in very believable fashions. The locals in a few of the towns Kidd and Johanna visit are just outright mean and hostile, but despite the location and time, they feel really watered down. There’s little-to-no hateful sentiments spat from their mouths in regards to Native or African-Americans, the worst being a settlement leader trying to claim he’s successfully wrangled racial problems in his area by dominating with his white posse and a group of men attempting to steal Johanna to turn into a sex worker.

The latter point may sound disgusting, and it most certainly is, but the writing makes it all feel too bland and too safe of an approach to the subjects it presents that it frequently feels like it wants to be a Western of Oscar-worthy proportions akin to True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma. It’s also these clear aspirations that just keep the film from ever taking off, with the pacing never really getting going and the story frequently proving far too predictable to be compelling. The film really only sees two areas in which things become interesting to watch, a chase scene between the sex slave bandits (not their real names, but what else is there to call them, really) and the final 30 minutes or so in which we finally learn some backstory on why Kidd pushed himself to always be on the road and never return home.

While generally known for the shaky camerawork of the Bourne franchise and another Hanks-starrer Captain Phillips, co-writer/director Paul Greengrass displays a better grip, both literally and figuratively, on properly blending steadier camerawork with the shakier moments, most notably in the standoff between said bandits and Kidd and Johanna. It’s a very well-shot and well-executed bit of action that taps into some of the best tropes of Western shootouts while also offering a few unique twists in how they normally play out.

Despite all these problems, one would hope at the very least to see another great performance from its two-time Oscar-winning star, but unfortunately even Hanks proved to be fairly underwhelming in the film. When the moment called for it, he was plenty warm and charming, as comes natural to him, but the rest of the film really just feels as though he’s sort of going through the motions and more detached from the material than some of the weaker films he at least shined in.

It’s by no means a bad performance, as the final chunk of the film opens it up for him to show the dramatic chops that generally make him a marvel to watch, but given Hanks’ general consistency for greatness, it’s kind of disappointingly basic, much like the film as a whole. There are certainly worse Westerns out there to avoid, but there are certainly better one to visit before turning to News of the World.