Though it’s nowhere near as popular as it used to be, the Western genre is typically responsible for at least one great film per year, give or take. In 2019, that film came in the form of Jennifer Kent’s harrowing but essential The Nightingale; in 2018, the Coen brothers returned to the genre with the sublime Ballad of Buster Scruggs. All of this is to say, while this year’s News of the World may not go down as one of the greatest modern Westerns, it does have a place among the genre’s more notable recent works.
News of the World is directed by Paul Greengrass and stars Tom Hanks as Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who travels the West delivering news to small frontier towns. When he stumbles upon a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who was seemingly abandoned in the wilderness, he takes it upon himself to deliver her to her last remaining family.
Now, this film features a pretty simple plot, which is both a strength and a weakness. Westerns are not typically known for their intricate plotting or complex storytelling (though there are exceptions to every rule), but in this regard, News of the World fits comfortably within the genre’s established parameters and tropes. There are tense shootouts, sleazy outlaws, and a lone figure at the centre searching for something more. If you’re a fan of Westerns, this tale will feel instantly recognisable.
However, this familiarity is also a drawback at times. Very few of the plot beats will surprise you—as I said, this film holds pretty true to genre conventions. It’s most interesting and timely aspect—scenes where Kidd shares the titular news—are used to great effect, but they’re also used sparingly. Hearing Kidd step into a more showman-like persona to bring people tales of the wider world is a delight, but the film seems more interested in aping True Grit in its tale of an aging man protecting a young one from harm.
The film’s somewhat ambiguous nature also does not help when it comes to the back half’s emotional beats, many of which fall somewhat flat. It’s never entirely clear why Johanna ended up abandoned in the wilderness (we’re told what happened to her family, but it still doesn’t fully inform her circumstances), and that lack of clarity hurts the film in its third act. The film can also feel a little disjointed, as it seems to pull itself in too many different directions when looked at as a whole. It tries to be a typical Western with shootouts and showdowns as well as a parable on the importance of information and stories, and the result is a film that feels spread a little thin. The finale is no doubt stirring, but it just feels like there is something missing.
Where the plot disappoints somewhat, the performances make up for many shortcomings. To put it simply, Hanks is fantastic as usual as Kidd. His performance is soulful and rugged; you can feel the pain and guilt he carries in every scene, ever present in his eyes. Even when he steps into performer mode, you can tell that this is a man who has suffered greatly and has many regrets. When he’s sharing the news, he sets aside his past—but it’s never entirely gone. He’s the ideal Western protagonist, and Hanks is the perfect man to bring him to life. It’s just a shame that his character never is really explored beyond the surface; the depths I describe are hinted at and given life by Hanks, but the script never reveals more than the viewer can already assume about Kidd. Some of the film’s final scenes shed some light on him as a character and deepen our understanding of him, but it makes you wish there was more of that characterization in the preceding 90 minutes.
Helena Zengel is also very impressive as Johanna, giving us a mostly physical performance. Her character may not be groundbreaking, but the young actress is incredibly effective at combining the sweetness of a child with the wild nature of a person who has lost everything. She makes the most of her limited (mostly non-English) dialogue, and it’s easy to become invested in her journey to find where she belongs.
As a director, Paul Greengrass mostly abandons his signature handheld shots for the sweeping and more grandiose feel that are commonplace among Westerns. Him and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski—who has shot blockbusters for Gore Verbinski, Ridley Scott, and others—create a gorgeous and majestic atmosphere that the genre is known for. This is another fine addition to the “I wish I could have seen this on the big screen” list for 2020, because it is very often beautiful to behold. The film also features a pitch-perfect score from legendary composer James Newton Howard, whose sparse piano keys and steady steel guitar tracks help immerse you in the Western mood.
For all its faults, I came away very pleased with News of the World. It may have a plot that feels too thin and characters whose motivations are frustratingly unclear, but it also features a very classic-feeling Western atmosphere and some truly exciting scenes and set-pieces. It’s not easy to have a film where Tom Hanks is having a shootout in a canyon and then reading the news to poor farmers 20 minutes later and both scenes are equally compelling, but News of the World pulls it off. It isn’t the greatest Western of the past few years, but it is one of the best from this year, and I suspect it will age well. Start spreading the news.
News of the World is in cinemas in the US and China from December 25 2020 and on Netflix internationally in early 2021.