News of the World

After just over a year of pandemic-related closure, cinemas in Los Angeles County finally reopened in March 2021, and News of the World marked my official return to moviegoing (notwithstanding last October's Tenet outing). Why this film, out of all the others? Mainly because it was playing at a convenient place and time, but also because I figured a sweeping Western would be especially suited for the big-screen experience.

It still feels creepy to watch a two hour film while wearing a face mask, and there was a distinct loneliness in the theater, as if I was one of the world's last remaining movie fans, going to the cinema one final time before they all shut down forever. Still and all, I was happy to be back.

Set in 1870 Texas, News of the World's unusual title is explained in its first scene, as Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels from town to town to read newspapers aloud to rapt crowds, since they are too "busy" (read: illiterate) to manage the task on their own. He charges each audience member a dime apiece for the pleasure, and that's how he makes it through his solitary life.

One day, on the trail between towns, Kidd comes across the body of a hanged black man and a frightened young white girl the man was transporting to her kin. Kidnapped by Kiowa Indians six years earlier, the girl, named Johanna (German actress Helena Zengel, around ten years old at the time of filming), has adopted the Kiowa as her true family, and speaks only their language. With no one else to transport her across the vast and violent state, Kidd takes it upon himself to do so. Naturally, various perils – mostly in the form of dangerous men – stand in their way.

News of the World is a 21st century version of an "old-fashioned Western". Postwar Texas is depicted as filthy and tense, populated by proud but lost souls bitter about the Confederacy's defeat and resentful of Reconstruction efforts and the presence of Yankee soldiers. (The film was shot more than a year before Donald Trump's 2020 election loss, yet it feels quite relevant, given the events of early 2021.) Yet it lacks the cynicism of the Coens' True Grit, and there's even a tinge of corniness, with Kidd an unimpeachably decent man, full of bravery and a passion for democracy. His relationship with the headstrong Johanna, as they travel across the rugged terrain, is wholesome and sweet. It's all right if you can guess how it's going to end, because these two good people deserve whatever happiness they can find.

News of the World is neither profound nor challenging enough to deserve classic status, but it's a nice movie, with crisp cinematography (courtesy of Dariusz Wolski) and a truly uplifting epilogue. And yes, it does benefit from the silver screen.