Paul Greengrass traffics in massacre porn. Whether it’s the ill-fated flight of United 93, an Irish uprising in Bloody Sunday or a white supremacist attack in Norway that left 77 dead in 22 July, you can count on a high body count in a Greengrass film. Before setting out to make News of the World, the English filmmaker claimed that he was exhausted by carnage and strife and wanted to make something to promote healing, especially in a world as divisive as ours. Good intentions aside, we can be pretty sure Greengrass never set out to make something as boring as News of the World.

Tom Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who travels through post-Civil War Texas reading the news to people in the evenings, oratorical events that bring scores of people to hear about what’s happening in other parts of the nation. In his travels, Kidd encounters a young girl named Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) whose wagon has been attacked and the driver killed. Johanna, a girl of German descent, had been living with the Kiowa since they massacred her family when she was very young and does not speak English. Kidd decides to help Johanna by taking her south to live with her aunt and uncle.

Johanna, who now goes by the name Cicada, wants nothing more than to return to her Kiowa family. Kidd, who is compassionate, still feels that she belongs with her German family and, together, they traverse a divided Texas to reach them – and along the way, Kidd stops to read the news in towns where the residents are still smoldering from losing the Civil War. They howl when he mentions President Grant and though Kidd fought for the Confederacy, he definitely seems more interested in healing the divides between North and South than stoking any simmering resentments. If it all sounds very on the nose, an allegory shall we say, that’s because it is.

Based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, News of the World feels like a perfunctory film featuring yet another performance by Hanks as an honorable Everyman. It is a picaresque journey and as Kidd and Johanna travel south, they encounter all sorts of bad men who hope to stop their progress. Each of these bad guys are drawn in broad strokes, including Michael Angelo Covino (who has become this reviewer’s least favorite performer of 2020) as a chuckling veteran hoping to pimp out Johanna. Covino plays his character with such mustachio-twirling gusto, he feels teleported in from a Western of old. Thankfully, his screen time is brief. Meanwhile, Thomas Francis Murphy plays the “king” of a small town hoping to keep the ways of Johnny Reb alive. It’s up to Kidd to protect Johanna from these awful men and after numerous near-death scrapes, he and the girl form a connection.

But it’s all so boring! Hanks, always watchable, never instills his Kidd with any sort of moral quandary. Where does Johanna belong? With the Kiowa or the Germans? Kidd just goes where protocol tells him to go. And why has Kidd given himself to healing a fractured nation while his Confederate brethren still want to continue the fight. Why is he so special? Lastly, the film’s depiction of Native Americans is problematic. Careful to keep only white folks in the villain column, Greengrass still dehumanizes the films only indigenous characters by portraying them as shady figures of almost supernatural power that appear in a dust storm or exist only in between shadows.

At this point in his career, it’s assuming a lot that Tom Hanks may look into riskier material. We can still hold out hope that he will do another Cloud Atlas in his lifetime, but News of the World is right up there with Saving Private Ryan and the slew of other honorable men the actor has portrayed over the years. If Greengrass and Hanks hope News of the World will make people want to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle, they are naively mistaken. The movie fails to do one very important thing: entertain.

Exhausted by the carnage and strife of his previous work and wanting to make something to promote healing, we can be pretty sure Paul Greengrass never set out to make something as boring as News of the World.
40 %
Bored on the range
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