There’s a whole subgenre of movie-going pleasure that boils down to “Tom Hanks is a good man who is also good at his job.” News of the World, which features Hanks as an antique sort of traveling anchorman bringing headlines to the roiling Texan frontier in 1870, is director Paul Greengrass’s Western take on the form. (Greengrass co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies; the film is based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles.)
Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War. Five years after Lincoln’s assassination, Kidd roams encampments and small towns with a bundle of newspapers and collects a few coins from the crowd in exchange for reading aloud a little bit of the news. He has local headlines and national ones, and even carries The Times of India on him. Greengrass opens the film with one of his readings, and the moment burgeons with atmospheric charm—long, deep shadows accentuated by flickering oil lamps, the faces of the crowd smeared with the day’s grime, the mounting anticipation of gathering around a platform to hear something new.
It’s a far cry from CNN, but the film delicately teases out the need to understand the wider world while reveling in Kidd’s hallowed, central role as the arbiter and curator of headlines. He fought for the South in the war, and speaks to crowds ferociously opposed to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which Texas has to ratify before it can rejoin the United States. Still, the viewer implicitly trusts him, and the film just rolls with it—making Kidd a slightly aged, bookish hero who, of course, is compelled to do the right thing when he comes across a nearly feral adolescent girl (Helena Zengel) in the woods near Wichita Falls.
Her chaperone, a Black man, has been lynched, the stagecoach demolished, the horses stolen. She only speaks a foreign language—not German, as the name on her papers might suggest, but Kiowa, the language of the indigenous tribe being forced off their land by white settlers. Kidd takes on the duty of taking her back to her only remaining blood relatives, hundreds of miles away in south Texas.
If the emotional arc of the movie seems a little predictable from here on out, that doesn’t make the film unenjoyable. The unlikely pair have no choice but to bond as they traverse a treacherous, stark landscape, depicted with uncommon beauty by Greengrass and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. The movie’s greatest success is in making the landscape come to life—miles of empty scrublands, the pitch-black of dark outside the little towns, herds of cattle crossing muddy plains as they’re driven to market. The makeshift settlements—including proto-versions of Dallas and San Antonio—are romantically charged with the signifiers of the Wild West. The man and girl form a powerful connection over the course of the film, drawn together by mutual loss and need in this inhospitable environment. At the core of the story is the sense that neither of them fit anywhere in this tumultuous world, even as they are doomed to keep seeking a home.
But despite the intriguing character elements at play, News of the World feels kind of quaint. No Kiowa or Black characters have speaking roles, even though the plot turns on them. And while Zengel, who is playing a less unruly version of her character in System Crasher, is a wonderful character, a child haunted by layers of tragedy she can barely articulate, Kidd himself is too enigmatic for most of the film—more archetype than flesh-and-blood. That his character works at all is an indication of Hanks’s uncanny ability to radiate rock-solid integrity—but as the center of the film, he’s strangely without any personality except goodness.
To be sure, that kind of character has a home in the western—and News of the World is rich with old west texture, including a good-old-fashioned shootout. But the contiguous parts of the film don’t blend into something uniform. News of the World takes stabs at modern relevance with some of its storytelling, only to suspend other parts of the narrative in a world of frontier fantasy.
After all, the film couches Kidd’s work as a newsreader with not-so-subtle commentary on how media manipulates the unwashed masses. For all of his goodness and faith in the true stories of the world, News of the World also breaks down how much power he has as the skilled presenter of these articles. Kidd’s characterization may be bafflingly subtle, but the resonance of his role as a newsreader is almost eye-rollingly unsubtle, as he proves his ability to sway or soothe the crowd by the way he reads the story.
News of the World builds a tense contrast between the polished words Kidd reads and the barren, wordless country he travels through, which culminates, kind of, in a breathtaking sandstorm late in the film that offers the audience some beautiful and indelible images. It feels as if Kidd should have more of a reckoning with how words sometimes fail to describe the world, especially as he is bound by duty to a girl who has no words to share with him. But News of the World only digs so deep—far enough to get to the desired conclusion, and not an inch more.