His low-key persona may not grab attention, but Paul Greengrass’ virtuosic verve behind the camera has morphed mainstream cinema. With United 93 and The Bourne Trilogy, the unheralded director employed kinetic handheld framing to intensify his distinct zeitgeist titles. Greengrass’ fresh persona changed action filmmaking forever, even though some of his recent endeavors haven’t been as inspiring (22 July and the long-awaited Jason Bourne were missed opportunities). In an intriguing switch-up, Greengrass trades his modern sensibility for the old-school appeals of the wild west in News of the World, a winning adventure elevated by one of the industry’s marquee talents.
News of the World follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kid (Tom Hanks), a Civil War veteran now working to spread the news to local townsfolk. When he discovers a kidnapped native girl (Helena Zengel), the two journey across the dangerous Texas landscape to return her home.
It’s refreshing to see Greengrass adopt a new visceral identity, trading his usually sweaty intimacy for a sweeping grandiosity. Indulging in the barren deserts and rocky locales, the film aptly sets a setting for audiences to get lost in, along with portraying the inherent dangers behind Captain Jefferson’s mission. There are a lot of traditionalist elements to Greengrass’ presentation (the film boasts your typically subdued western score), but the director also discovers avenues to leave his mark on the material. He enhances the action/adventure elements with nail-biting tension, including a 20-minute standoff that sings with authenticity and gritty impact. I credit Greengrass for taking the familiar husk of the subgenre and enriching it through his accomplished craftsmanship.
News of the World rests much of its success on its well-matched leads. In the least shocking news ever, Tom Hanks delivers a strong effort as Captain Jefferson, intimately exploring the gooey emotions under the character’s stern facade. Along with developing a well-constructed character, Hanks shines as a masterful orator when performing his unique job. The news-telling scenes could have been woefully flat in the wrong hands, but his ever-present charisma engages the audience from jump street. Young newcomer Helena Zengel deserves a lot of credit for disappearing into her role as the timid Johanna. Zengel conveys the character’s stark journey with emotional sincerity while forming genuine comradery with Hanks onscreen. The characters’ lack of verbal communication doesn’t mask their shared desire to grow from their past traumas, with that kinship molding into a heartfelt emotional core.
News of the World works capably as an old-school adventure, but Greengrass’ film misses the boat on deeper conceits. There are frames where audiences can see the thematic ideas behind Captain Kyle’s journey, observing the ways news and news manipulation shape a populous’s notions about the world around them (a lawless cult makes Kyle read ignorantly curated stories). It’s a thoughtful idea, one that’s often handled with a clumsy obviousness by Greengrass and Luke Davies screenplay (the film’s Reconstruction setting also rarely gets the attention it deserves). The third act also loses some of its pacing momenta as the narrative searches for a satisfying conclusion (the strong last few frames help combat the ending’s predictably).
News of the World is the type of old-school epic that we don’t see enough of these days. While inherently straight-forward, Paul Greengrass and company’s sincerity rings true within the material.
News of the World opens in theaters on Christmas Day.
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