Director Paul Greengrass is generally considered an ‘action’ director.
With three Jason Bourne films to his credit, Captain Philips and the Anders Breivick movie, 22 July, he’s established a reputation for the use of hand-held cameras, rapid cutting and heart-stopping stunts, all designed to keep his public biting their collective fingernails. News of the World seems an unlikely vehicle for his talents. For one thing, it’s a western. For another, the story unfolds in a slow – one might even say ‘stately’ manner – and, while it’s strong on period detail, handsomely filmed and and nicely acted, there are no real surprises in this narrative.
In the years following the civil war, former Confederate officer Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) plies a humble trade, riding from town-to-town with a selection of newspapers, from which he reads extracts to grateful audiences. His aim is to inform them about the massive changes taking place in this ‘Brave New West.’ As he travels across the land in his ramshackle wagon, we witness some of those changes – and few of them are for the better: buffalo are being slaughtered for profit, Native Americans are herded off the land they’ve owned for centuries, and there are some small town entrepreneurs determined to make Kidd tell the local news in ways that make them look like heroes, no matter how heinous their actions.
But Kidd is steadfast. Facts are facts and he has little tolerance for fantasy, even when sticking to the truth spells danger.
Matters take an unexpected turn, when Kidd chances on Johanna (Helena Zengal), a thirteen-year-old German girl who has been the captive of a tribe of Kiowa for many years – the same Kiowa who murdered her parents when she was little. She has recently been ‘liberated’ and was en route to her surviving relatives in Castroville, Texas, when persons unknown decided to lynch the black trooper who was escorting her. After fruitless attempts to get somebody else to take on the responsibility, Kidd realises his only option is to accompany her himself, a trip of some 400 miles. At first it’s an uneasy alliance – Johanna only speaks Kiowa, so she and Kidd have to rely on signs and gestures to communicate. But as they travel onwards, so the ice thaws, and their friendship begins to develop…
To give the film its due, there is some welcome action in the middle section, when Kidd and Johanna are pursued by three sleazy drifters, determined to ‘acquire’ the girl so they can put her to work as a prostitute. It’s only in the ensuing chase sequence that we see some flashes of Greengrass’s action credentials – but, all too soon, we’re back to that leisurely pace as the odd couple close in on their destination, the point where they must finally part company.
Don’t get me wrong, this is entertaining stuff and Greengrass manages to make the theme of the importance of an impartial press feel relevant to contemporary America. Hanks offers another of his seemingly endless collection of taciturn heroes, and Zengal, who made such an impression in System Crasher, gets the most out of a role where she barely has an opportunity to speak.
But I’d have been happier if some of the events depicted here didn’t have quite such predictable outcomes.