top of page
  • by Jeff Beck

News of the World: A Marvelous Character Study and a Breathtaking Epic

Director/writer Paul Greengrass' filmography has been an eclectic mix of actioners, character dramas, and in some cases, films based on true events. He's thrilled us with the "Bourne" films and gotten us emotionally involved with the heroes of "Captain Phillips" and "United 93" (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), all the while captivating the audience with his storytelling prowess. For his latest project, "News of the World," he looks to hit all of these elements again as he dives into the vast planes of Texas for another intimate character piece.

Taking place in 1870 (just five years after the end of the Civil War), we meet Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks), a veteran who now travels from town to town reading the news to gatherings of people. On his journey, he comes across a carriage that has been attacked, and the driver hung. The only survivor is a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who had been living with the Kiowa tribe after they killed her parents and abducted her years ago. After trying to turn her over to the proper authorities, he decides to take her to the only home she has left himself. It's a quest of many miles, fraught with many sources of danger (and she doesn't exactly want to go), but he bravely takes it on in hopes of giving her a future with her remaining family.

On the surface, "News of the World" (based on the novel by Paulette Jiles) seems like a pretty simple tale of a good man just trying to get a little girl to her new home, but look a little deeper and you find a rather compelling story of two lost people who are thrown together in an extreme circumstance, as they try to find a future while grappling with the past. We learn that Captain Kidd went off to war years ago, leaving behind a wife, and has yet to return home to face what has happened. Out of fear or outright disbelief, this has been his reason for traveling from city to city (practically a literal metaphor for his continual running from the past) spreading the news of the world to those who have interest in the happenings of far-off places.

Johanna is quite another matter. Taken when she was very young, she was raised by the Kiowa, making them the only real family she has ever known. When she is reclaimed by her own people, who see her as something of a wild child, and rejected by her Kiowa family, she finds herself adrift as the Captain attempts to take her to an aunt and uncle she has never known. It seems like more than mere coincidence that these two end up finding each other when they do, for we soon come to realize that they're ultimately looking for the same thing. Again, it might be easy to mistake this for a basic little adventure, but screenwriters Greengrass and Luke Davies give these characters exactly what they need in order to make them fully-formed human beings that the audience becomes emotionally attached to and cares about deeply.

Adding to this remarkable tale is the extraordinary craft that went into its making. Aside from Greengrass' always-on-point direction, the film features stunning cinematography from Dariusz Wolski ("The Martian," "Pirates of the Caribbean"), richly-detailed production design from David Crank ("The Master," "Greyhound"), and a gorgeous score from eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard ("The Fugitive," "The Dark Knight"). The scope of the film is simply breathtaking, feeling like an epic, but never forgetting the two displaced characters at the center of the narrative, who are ultimately what give it its heart and soul.

All combined, Greengrass and co. have crafted a marvelous film, one that will dazzle your eyes with all of the hard work that went into creating its period setting and play on your heartstrings with its fleshed-out characters and its exciting, gripping story. Add to that a pair of fine performances from Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel, and you get one of the best films of the year, one who's touching tale will stay with you for some time after these brief two hours are up.

3.5/4 stars.

Starts in theaters on Christmas Day.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.


Join our mailing list

bottom of page