The western gets a slightly revisionist spin in “News of the World,” a film starring Tom Hanks that’s really the same plot as “The Mandalorian,” just without the armor. Despite an action-filled trailer, director/co-writer Paul Greengrass’ movie is only fitfully eventful, relying heavily on the grudging relationship formed between Hanks’ taciturn vagabond and his unlikely young charge.
Set five years after the Civil War, Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a grizzled veteran who now ekes out a living traveling from town to town, entertaining crowds by reading and summarizing newspaper articles highlighting stories from around the globe.
Recognizing that his audience lacks the time or ability, think of him as an early news aggregator, culled from a rich tradition of storytelling. Kidd presents it as a way to “escape our troubles,” though lingering division and psychic wounds from the war – including his own – fester not far below the surface.
In the starkest example, Kidd plies his trade at an encampment where the business mogul presiding over the place wants him to lie to his audience in order to keep them more pliable. Think “fake news,” only without the digital megaphone.
If that sounds a bit uncomfortably like the US as it stands 150 years later, that’s no accident. Greengrass (of “United 93” and the Jason Bourne movies, who previously directed Hanks in “Captain Phillips”) has a history of slipping social and political commentary into his films.
Kidd is unprepared, however, when he finds Johanna (Helena Zengel), an orphaned young immigrant child who has been raised by the Kiowa and speaks only their language. Efforts to enlist the army’s help in finding her a home prove futile, at which point he takes it upon himself to shepherd Johanna back to her surviving relatives, uncertain how she’ll be received.
Adapted from Paulette Jiles’ novel, their journey moves at an unhurried pace, along a near-lawless path in which they encounter kindness and cruelty – although the latter is in greater abundance, including those who would exploit the child for their own ends.
Hanks delivers the kind of upstanding everyman performance for which he’s known – his second this year, following the war movie “Greyhound” – as a character nursing both pain and regrets. His inherent decency makes “News of the World” work to the extent that it does, and the nature of the quest echoes themes from classic westerns, among them “The Searchers.”
For fans of the genre, that old-fashioned feel is something of a treat. That said, the promotional campaign does the film no favors – especially for those who associate Greengrass with kinetic action scenes – since barring one or two sequences, those expecting the kind of adrenaline rush that the ads would suggest are apt to be let down.
Overall, “News of the World” is a solid if unspectacular film, presenting a familiar story against an interesting historical backdrop. It just doesn’t deliver quite the much-needed escape from their troubles to a contemporary audience that Kidd promises his crowds.
“News of the World” premieres Dec. 25 in select theaters. It’s rated PG-13.