It feels a little silly that Paul Greengrass hadn’t made a western before 2020. As the director of three visually energetic Bourne movies and such immersive reality-based films as United 93, Captain Phillips and 22 July, Greengrass’ penchant for storytelling efficiency and spare, nuts-and-bolts action filmmaking feel like a natural fit for the genre. With News of the World, that pairing works like a reliable pair of boots; not terribly new or shiny, but comfortable and satisfying nonetheless. Greengrass teams up with Captain Phillips star Tom Hanks to deliver a textbook western film that doesn’t break any new ground, but delivers everything you’d hope it would.
Adapted from Paulette Jiles’ novel, News of the World follows Hanks’ Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a confederate Civil War veteran turned itinerant newsreader who travels across Texas reading newspaper stories to groups of paying townsfolk. On the road, he encounters a child, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who was taken by the Kiowa six years earlier after the massacre of her family, and raised by the tribe, who have now been wiped out by the government. Kidd reluctantly decides to reunite the traumatized Johanna with her remaining family. Along the way, Kidd’s growing bond with the girl helps him to process his own difficult past.
Throughout News of the World, Greengrass and co-writer Luke Davies look at the post-war frontier of Texas with an eye toward the early echoes of white entitlement and racism that exist now. These parallels are never made directly explicit, but they’re there in the suffering of the black and brown individuals Kidd encounters, and attitudes of the white people. They’re particularly apparent in a tyrannical settlement leader, Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who makes Kidd read out his independently-published propaganda rag in a command performance.
This moment brings up another big theme about the importance of storytelling–one that points directly (and, one has to imagine intentionally) to the power of News of the World’s cinematic medium. Kidd describes his news reading as a momentary escape for hard-working folks in need of entertainment. However, it’s also a valuable service that reminds his listeners their limited experience isn’t all there is. When Farley forces Kidd to read his newspaper to his lackeys, Kidd instead reads from outside publications, an action that infuriates Farley but fascinates the other men, even inspiring one to desert the settlement and set out for more inspiring pastures.
More than thematic resonance, however, Greengrass is concerned with playing in the genre sandbox, which he does successfully. Not only is the tone well-suited to his no-frills directing sensibilities, Greengrass is also working with a dependable team. Hanks makes a great world-weary protagonist and reluctant dad, and his energy pairs well with Zengel’s enigmatic maturity. James Newton Howard turns in a dramatic, excellently styled score that complements cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s wide open panoramas of the dusty Texas plains.
News of the World isn’t shattering archetypes or blazing new revisionist trails with its story. It’s straightforward, down-the-middle fare. In Greengrass and Hanks’ capable hands, however, it’s well-executed, hitting aesthetic hallmarks and effective story beats from the first shot to the last. It may not be instantly memorable, but it’s hard to think of another movie from the last year that hits the spot so dead-on.
“News of the World” is available Friday on demand.