Today, if you want a selection of news from different publications, you can use the mobile app. But if you lived in Texas in 1870, you could pay a dime to watch Tom Hanks flip through a pile of newspapers and read selected articles aloud. It seems to be a much better offer.
In “World News,” a modest, solid western directed by Paul Greengrass and based on Paulette Jiles ’novel, Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kidd, a Civil War veteran who throws out a post-bellum that lives as an analog news aggregator. Kidd, who fought on the Confederate side, travels from place to place, trading a combination of diversions and information. He promises yarn that will distract his audience from his own problems, although his choices include reports of an outbreak of meningitis, a coal mine fire and a ferry accident.
All of this can be considered fun given the gloom of the local situation. Five years after the end of the war, a state of smoldering hostility persists in much of Texas. Union soldiers patrol cities and roads, causing dissatisfaction among the white population, which does not want to join the United States. Kidd encounters the aftermath of a lynching and hears frequent reports of violence against Indians and Mexicans. As is common in westerns, this bloodshed is part of the film’s background, not its open theme. The title is a bit deceptive; the story is intimate and specific and careful to remove any political implications that might make viewers uncomfortable.
Kidd is a variation of the famous Western archetype – a wandering soul who has seen and done terrible things and whose caution around other people cannot obscure his fundamental decency. The first thing we see in a man are the battle scars on his torso, and before we hear much about him, we assume he inflicted suffering and endured it. We know he’s a good guy, even if we don’t hear much about the Lost Cause he fought for – not an unusual choice in a western, but one that may have outlived its adequacy. Since this is the Tom Hanks we’re talking about, kindness is the dominant note and the drama stems less from the character’s internal ethical struggle than from the external challenges he faces in his quest to do the right thing.
These challenges include various bad guys, car problems, difficult terrain and bad weather. All this and more attacks Kidd on his journey in the company of a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel). A child of German farmers, Johanna was abducted and raised by the Kiowa tribe and is now twice orphaned. After a flurry of new accidents, Kidd takes it upon himself to hand over the non-English-speaking girl to her aunt and uncle in Castroville, far away in the mountainous state.
In the costumes are “News of the World” B western, slender and linear, his spare shop decorated with efficient set pieces. Greengrass, one of the most inventive and rigorous action directors currently working – his chapters in the Jason Bourne franchise are still unsurpassed in speed and spatial coherence – respects the genre tradition, rather than trying to invent it. When Kidda and Johanna are chased by some nasty outlaws along the treacherous line of the ridge, the shooting that follows represents a comeback and a master class, just as evil and tense as something in an old Budd Boetticher movie.
Other pleasures include a fine cast (among others Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon and Bill Camp) and the relationship of Hanks and Zengel, an impressively controlled young actor who rejects any temptation of cuteness. None of the performers exaggerate with the sympathies that develop between Kidd and Johanna, and the film is gentle without going too much into sentimentality.
But it can also feel a bit soft and bloated. Too much true sand has been sanded, too many hard true stories have nodded and turned away from them. The musical score, by James Newton Howard, is intrusively important and contributes to the feeling that the scale is not quite right. This is not a bad movie. The problem is that it’s too beautiful a film, too careful and compromised, as if its creators don’t trust the audience to deal with real world news.
Rated PG-13. He discreetly dealt with violence. Time required: 1 hour 58 minutes. In theaters. Please refer to the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies in theaters.