Paul Greengrass’s latest film “News of the World”, which was released theatrically in US around the end of last year and then released on Netflix on other countries including South Korea yesterday, is a conventional western movie which takes a predictable journey along with its two strong characters. Although their journey will not surprise you much if you are a seasoned movie audience, the overall result is fairly solid under Greengrass’s competent direction, and it is supported well by the two engaging main performances holding its center well together.
Set in Texas, 1870, the movie begins with the opening scene showing us how Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), who was once a member of the Confederate Army infantry unit, has earned his meager living since the end of the Civil War. As traveling alone from one remote town to another, he reads several newspapers in front of many people who cannot read, and these illiterate people are willing to pay 10 cents for hearing him entertainingly delivering any funny or interesting news from the outside world.
Not long after he leaves for some other town by his shabby wagon, Kidd comes across the remains of a smashed wagon on the road, which turns out to belong to some African American dude who happened to be hanged on a nearby tree. As he glances at the dead body of this African American guy for a while, it is clear to us that Kidd does not like this cruel act at all, though the movie does not delve that much into his personal viewpoint on the racist aspect of the Confederate.
Meanwhile, it is revealed that there was someone else in the ruined wagon, and that person in question is a little Caucasian girl who cannot speak English at all. According to the government document which Kidd discovers from the ruined wagon, she was the young daughter of a German immigrant couple killed by a local Native American tribe, and, as reflected by her Native American clothing, she was raised in that tribe for several years before she was recently taken by the Union Army.
When he is subsequently requested to take this little girl to a town where she is supposed to be handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs representative staying there, Kidd is naturally reluctant, but, as a person of decency and compassion, he accepts the request anyway. Although it later turns out that he should accompany her longer than expected, he does not complain at all while trying his best, and the girl seems to begin to appreciate his efforts despite the language barrier between them.
Although the mood occasionally becomes intense during several scenes including the one where Kidd and the girl must stick together under a perilous circumstance, the screenplay by Greengrass and his co-writer Luke Davies, which is adapted from the novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, leisurely rolls from one moment to another along with its two main characters. There is a gloomy sequence set in a miserable town under the control of some vicious old dude who tries to make Kidd read his deceitful local newspaper (Talk about fake news!), and then there is also a spectacular scene involved with a dust storm which suddenly comes upon our two main characters.
While it is clear from the beginning that Kidd cares about the girl more than he admits on the surface, the movie keeps holding our attention with its vivid period atmosphere and details, and Greengrass’ crew members did a top-notch job on the whole. While cinematographer Dariusz Wolski provides a number of splendid landscape shots I am willing to see on big screen someday, the restrained score by James Newton Howard effectively accompanies these beautiful moments without drawing too much attention from us, and the production design by David Crank and Elizabeth Keenan and the costumes by Mark Bridges are also commendable to say the least.
Above all, the movie is anchored well by its two lead performers, who eventually come to us as the soul and heart of the film. As many of you know, Tom Hanks is no stranger to playing good decent guys as exemplified by his recent Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019), and he is effortless in embodying his character’s decency and integrity in addition to the deep human pathos beneath his ragged appearance. His co-star Helena Zengel, a 12-year-old year German actress who incidentally makes her international debut here in this film, gives an equally stellar performance which speaks volumes even during her wordless moments, and we will probably see more of her considerable talent during next several years.
In case of the other main cast members in the movie, they come and then go as bringing some colorful personality to the story. While Elizabeth Marvel is solid during her little intimate scene with Hanks, Mare Winningham exudes gentle kindness in her brief supporting performance, and I also welcome Bill Camp’s short but impressive appearance around the end of the film.
In conclusion, “News of the World” is less striking than Greengrass’ several notable works such as “United 93” (2006) and “Captain Phillips” (2013), but it is interesting to see him trying something different here, and I enjoyed its mood and performance enough to go along with its conventional aspects. Sure, it is not that fresh or great, but it is a fairly enjoyable genre piece, so I will not grumble for now.