“News of the World” is a disappointing waste of potential

By Tomas Babicki |

Paul Greengrass’ first major departure from the contemporary socio-political thriller genre, with which his name has become synonymous, amounts to a series of underwhelming encounters set against a bland landscape which fails to truly capture its era.

Set in 1870, the film follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks); a worn frontiersman who travels through the southern states of America, reading excerpts from the news in town halls full of citizens adjusting to a post-Civil-War America.

the cinematography is exasperatingly bland…

During his travels through Texas, Kidd happens upon an abandoned wagon whose slave driver has been lynched. Hiding in the wreckage is a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who doesn’t speak a word of English. With no alternative, Kidd is forced to transport Johanna to her only surviving relatives on the opposite side of the state. A friendship blossoms between the two as they learn to understand one another’s culture and confront the experiences that have led them to this point.

The most glaring issue to address is the lack of consistency in the films overall tone and its failure to create any kind of lasting atmosphere. News of the World is, frankly, too clean. Perhaps, as an audience, we have been spoiled in the past few decades by the graphic authenticity of period films like There Will Be Blood (2007), The Witch (2015) and The Nightingale (2018). However, the set design looks as though it was pieced together from relics left over from old Rawhide and Gunsmoke episodes. Paired with an excessive use of extras, almost every environment feels like a sound stage.

In the same vein, the cinematography is exasperatingly bland. The camera refuses to reap the benefits of the vast landscapes, nor does it ever close in on the lead actors to explore their performances in any depth. On top of this, poor CGI is used so sporadically and at such unnecessary junctures that it becomes distracting and strips scenes of their emotional impact. I generally avoid putting any blame on CGI as a cause of poor storytelling, although in this case it is sincerely distracting.

The road movie formula which the film follows generally waives the need for intense dissection of broader issues which form a films backdrop. Yet in this instance, Greengrass is too apprehensive to explore any of the films many tangents in any real depth. Thus, the many encounters which make up a majority of the film just become a series of vaguely interesting anecdotes. There is not the support from the underlying narrative to distract from the often lazily integrated illustrations of frontier life. Often before there is even time to process what is happening, a tangent is wrapped up and forgotten by the next scene.

hasty storytelling…

Similarly, characters from Kidd’s past are set up, deliver a heavy-handed piece of exposition and are then dismissed again within the same scene. Between this and Kidd verbally philosophising about the American dream, there is little nuance to be found in the development of the film’s many half-baked messages. The hasty storytelling is also exemplified in several scenes where Kidd is threatened with a gun, and rather than pulling the trigger the villain will monologue or become distracted, allowing for a miraculous rescue.

Initially I was thrilled to see Helena Zengal cast as Johanna following her phenomenal breakout role in System Crasher (2019). By the credits, however, I was left frustrated by the one dimensional part being thrust upon this once-in-a-generation young talent. Exacerbating this is that the core of the dynamic between Johanna and Kidd is the communication and culture barrier, and yet the writing only seems to play up to this when it is convenient for the plot. Johanna goes from refusing to use a spoon to crafting makeshift buckshot in the middle of a gunfight within a few scenes.

The most intriguing element of Johanna’s background is that she was raised among Native Americans, yet somehow the storytelling even fails to do this thread justice. This plotline is introduced by Johanna quite literally screaming “I’m one of you” (subtitled for the audience but incomprehensible to Kidd) at a Native tribe. At a time of such intense revisionism of American history, it seems dated to have the Natives treated like a phantom presence who at one point materialise like daemons in the middle of a sandstorm to save Kidd and Johanna.

Tom Hanks | Wikimedia Commons

As for Hanks, his own arc does suffer acutely from ‘Tom Hanks syndrome’, in that it is difficult to find any reason to dislike or further examine the layers of his character because… well, because he’s Tom Hanks. Who doesn’t like Tom Hanks? This isn’t helped by the weak character development he undergoes, which relies on old friends to paint a very lucid and uncontroversial portrait of his personality.

In the end, News of the World is a vacuum of wasted potential, both of the vast amounts of talent at its disposal and the genuinely unique source material. What could’ve been Park Row meets The Searchers is instead a rare dud in Greengrass’ otherwise consistent track record. Although competently made, News of the World is entirely predictable, generic and, most heinously, forgettable.