News of the World review – Tom Hanks fights fake news in the wild west

Helena Zengel as Johanna and Tom Hanks as Capt Kidd in News of the World.
‘This show is almost stolen by the young German actor’: Helena Zengel as Johanna and Tom Hanks as Capt Kidd in News of the World. Photograph: Bruce W Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix
‘This show is almost stolen by the young German actor’: Helena Zengel as Johanna and Tom Hanks as Capt Kidd in News of the World. Photograph: Bruce W Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix

Paul Greengrass’s hybrid western has depth, beauty, topical resonance – and a mesmerising rising star

Mark Kermode
Observer film critic
Sun 14 Feb 2021 03.00 EST

“I ain’t never heard of newsreading as a business before.” So says a wide-eyed Fred Hechinger in writer-director Paul Greengrass’s visually expansive yet oddly intimate adaptation of Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel – a hybrid western that comes on like The Searchers or True Grit bizarrely crossed with Broadcast News. The setting might be post-civil war north Texas, but there’s no mistaking the modern-day parallels as Tom Hanks travels the land, dramatically reading down-to-earth stories from a selection of newspapers and journals.

With his avuncular manner and steadfast trustworthiness, he’s an 1870s Walter Cronkite on a horse, spreading the good word with a touch of theatre. Yet this show is almost stolen from Hanks by young German actor Helena Zengel, a mesmerising screen presence who made such an impact in Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, and who here confirms herself as a star in the making.

Hanks (who took the title role in Greengrass’s Captain Phillips) plays Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Confederate captain turned lonely traveller who finds himself reluctantly in charge of 10-year-old Johanna (Zengel). She was taken by the Kiowa people years ago, but is now being returned to her relatives – a German aunt and uncle – after a brutal raid on her adopted tribe. (“This child is an orphan twice over,” says Elizabeth Marvel’s Mrs Gannett.) It’s an assignment Kidd resists, not least because Johanna, who calls herself “Cicada”, speaks no English, eats with her hands, and seems forever to be flitting between fight and flight. Yet recognising that the child needs a protector, Kidd agrees to be her escort, only to discover that he too needs saving, and that she may be his saviour – practically and philosophically.

Shot in panoramic vistas by Dariusz Wolski, and played out to the strains of a stirring James Newton Howard score, News of the World cries out to be seen on the big screen. From classic, high-ridge shootouts to an eerie dust storm and the hellscape of Erath (a town run by a Trump/Murdoch-style tyrant who owns both the news and the law), the film evokes the landscape of a mythical odyssey, full of awe and wonderment.

Yet even with the lockdown-enforced strictures of a Netflix-only UK release, it still strikes a timely chord, thanks to an empathic script co-written by Lion screenwriter Luke Davies, which inventively addresses the contemporary spectre of truth versus “alternative facts”, alongside issues of racism, exploitation, and newsreading as storytelling.

As Kidd, Hanks exudes a Jimmy Stewart-esque blend of sturdiness and sadness, relying on the ever-so-slightly hangdog curl of his lower lip and the camera-friendly glint in his eye to telegraph the pain of his past. “I guess we both have demons to face going down this road,” he tells his young charge, although specifics remain largely unspoken.

By contrast, Zengel is a ball of energy, slipping easily between feral screams (shades of Jodie Foster in Nell) and suppressed multilingual speech, subtly suggesting several lives existing within a single soul – a mystery to be appreciated and accepted rather than solved. A conversation between the two about the differing nature of their worldviews (one linear, one cyclical) emphasises the role of language in the creation of “reality”, another nod toward the way that reported news can change the world.

Having emerged from news documentaries to become a peerless director of vivid real-life dramas (Bloody Sunday, United 93) and frenetically visceral adventures (the Bourne franchise), Greengrass relishes the opportunity to take a more languorous attitude to character development and location, a quality that seems to have confounded some fans of the director’s more urgent fare. Yet I found this a rewarding and entertaining drama, heavy with the weight of the past, yet buoyed up by the possibilities of the future.