News of the World (2020)

Tom Hanks and the wildly-talented Helena Zengel strike up an odd partnership and just about lift this standard-fare Western-esque drama set in the Civil War period into something akin to serviceable entertainment. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Review #2,121

Dir. Paul Greengrass
2020 | USA | Drama/Adventure | 118 mins | 2.39:1 | English, North American Indian & German
M18 (Netflix rating) for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language

Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
Plot: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.
Awards: Nom. for 4 Oscars – Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Original Score
Distributor: Universal (SG: Netflix)

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Home, Outsiders, Cultural Identity

Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Netflix
Spoilers: No


I must admit that I’m getting a little disappointed by Paul Greengrass’ output of late, considering his high standards. 

His post-Captain Phillips (2013) phase feels rather underwhelming so far, with a half-decent Jason Bourne (2016) that no one needed, a lacklustre attempt at dramatising the 2011 Norway terror attacks and its aftermath in 22 July (2018) and now, an above-average News of the World, a reunion with Tom Hanks whose star wattage should pull in countless viewers on Netflix. 

Hanks is understated but still effective as Captain Kidd, a Civil War veteran-turned-travelling newsreader, but it is the wildly-talented Helena Zengel who plays Johanna, a German orphan raised by a Kiowa tribe but is now without a home, who steals the show. 

Zengel is a fascinating child actor, and in fact, she is ten times more astonishing in System Crasher (2019), where I first discovered her. 

Much of the film revolves around Johanna’s journey with the Capt. in a horse-pulled cart, the latter hoping to return her to her distant relatives in a faraway town. 

“See all those words printed in a line one after the other? Put ’em all together and you have a story.”

They strike up an odd partnership, one primarily marked by language difficulties, but make no mistake, Greengrass’ work is ultimately a feel-good studio movie, despite some sequences of suspense in the dangerous desert territory. 

Thematically, there are some allusions to the need for a democratic form of truth-telling and the stirring power of storytelling, but these aren’t developed with depth. 

Likewise, depictions of Native Americans function on the surface level of plotting without any contemplative treatment of culture or the lived experiences of the indigenous. 

News of the World should interest mainstream audiences, though its slower pacing may be a challenge for those expecting more narrative urgency.  Hanks and Zengel lift it into something akin to serviceable entertainment, but it is still a standard-fare Western-esque road movie.

Grade: B-


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