News of the World (2020)
Good storytelling too often takes a back seat to acting, sets and cinematography. This is not the case in News of the World (2020). With strong narrative flow and well-calibrated emotional intensity, it is a refreshing old-fashioned western story with insights for the modern world.
Weary from years of fighting on the losing side of the US Civil War in 1861-1865, former Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) makes a living as a public news reader. He buys newspapers in the big cities and roams between small towns, filling bars and halls with people eager to pay ten cents to hear news of the world. Setting out for another town, he finds an upturned wagon and a terrified ten-year-old orphan he calls Joanna (Helena Zengel). Raised by natives, she cannot speak English but trusts Jefferson to return her to safety. Thus begins an arduous journey as the pair survive a variety of dangers.
There are three storylines running parallel in this film: a tale of western frontier survival; a study of loss and belonging; and an historical look at the role of news and truth. The survival tale is a typically fast-moving adventure foregrounding Jefferson’s heroism and Joanna’s ingenuity. The pair are also a study of multiple layers of grief as Joanna has lost both her birth-parents and foster carers, while Jefferson lost his wife while fighting a war between the rich and poor. Both are emotionally untethered and find in each other a new chance to belong.
In addition to engaging entertainment, the film shows modern audiences how news can be artfully reconstructed by its messengers. Jefferson selects which news items to read and embellishes selectively for his listener’s enjoyment. He gauges audience reaction and tailors his performance to maximise impact. In one town he is instructed by its overlord to read locally produced self-interested news but instead he reads from a big-city newspaper about a corrupt town boss. It’s a timely message about bravery, truth and fake news.
Excellent cinematography captures iconic western landscapes, rustic townships and long dusty roads. Tom Hanks anchors the film with a superb performance, avoiding sentimentality yet conveying emotional depth. With a spartan script shared between Jefferson and Joanna, body language and facial expression become the principal channels of communication. Few actors can say so much with just a furrowed brow as Hanks, and young Zengel delivers an authentic and endearing performance. It reminds us how enjoyable great storytelling can be.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Stars: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel