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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: News of the World (2020)

News of the World is a film I really wanted to like, nay, love. It had the makings of something really great. A great lead, a great supporting actress, oodles of wonderful cameos and a director who rarely puts a foot wrong. Unfortunately, News of the World dashed my expectations by delivering something that is just too safe and unoriginal for its own good.

Set in Texas, the year is 1870, five years after the Civil War has ended. Tom Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a travelling newsreader who goes from town to town and literally reads the news of the world to people. He soon encounters a young girl who he must return to her only surviving relatives after she had been living with Native Americans since she was stolen by a group of them as an infant.

The real shame of News of the World is how middle of the road it is. It is neither awful nor amazing, but it’s not particularly good either. It doesn’t appear to want to ever think out the box and provide anything substantial to a genre that begs for ingenuity. When someone tries something new in a western, it can be one of the most refreshing cinematic experiences, but this doesn’t do that, hell, it doesn’t appear to even want to try that and decides to stick with a safe route we have all seen before. A promising first act quickly descends into a dull second act that effectively doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about its characters or the themes it’s trying to convey. It really feels like a rusty draw bridge to literally get the characters from point A to B, hoping they somehow arch as characters with new experiences and lessons learnt. Things happen to them, they move on, then more things happen, they move on. It just feels so meaningless and uninteresting that it never ever feels like it was there to fulfil a vital purpose.

Greengrass is a director who is a master of tension, and even when the film presents potentially thrilling, tense situations, it barely keeps us interested. Its lack of convincing tension really makes the film feel like the least Paul Greengrass film he has made. Gone is the claustrophobic tension of Captain Phillips, the doomed desperation of United 93, and the white knuckle intensity of his Bourne films. One could argue that News of the World was an attempt at stepping outside his usual genres, but without his trademark style and his very obvious mastery in crafting tension, News of the World feels too safe. Most of the second act feels too long, dragging itself to the final stretch with little to no character development. A big sin in a western is not making us care at all about the heroes and the villains, with the genre delivering some of the all-time great cinematic heroes and villains. Admittedly, it is hard to come up with something fresh in the genre we haven’t seen before, but as I mentioned, barely an attempt has been made.

Tom Hanks is one of the most reliable and likeable actors around, and he does carry the film as best as he can from scene to scene, but unlike his previous outing with Greengrass in Captain Phillips, he’s barely got any depth to work with here. The cameos that are spread throughout contain great actors, but unfortunately, like every character in this film, they are forgettable – blending into the background without any lasting impression on the viewer, even after each “hey look who it is!”, you completely forget them moments later. The biggest shame of them all though is the misuse of Helena Zengel as Hanks’ opposite in Johanna. Zengel’s breakthrough was 2019’s System Crasher, which had her delivering a truly breathtaking performance that was one my favourites of the year. In News of the World, she barely gets to do or say anything, and that’s largely due to a script that doesn’t give her permission to do much. She gets reduced to a character who utters a few words here and there, and even then there are almost no memorable interactions between her and Hanks that makes me care at all about their supposedly growing bond. By the end, I just don’t buy it, and unfortunately, I just cannot find it in me to care about them whatsoever.

News of the World really had me excited with its top cast and crew on board. It’s big, it looks nice, but it’s a far cry from being the great epic western it really needed to be. It’s not a terrible film, it’s just dull, and it barely leaves an impression. If you want to watch westerns from the last year that challenged the norms of the genre with unique and interesting themes, then look no further than Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow and the Polish film Eastern - which blends western genre tropes with a ritualistic medieval honour code that is truly unique and bizarre. At the end of the day, this is just my opinion, and there will be something here for people to digest and enjoy, but avid western fans may find themselves switching it off and watching Unforgiven instead.

Audiences in the US, as well as VPN users, can rent News of the World on Fandango Now, Amazon Prime and other VOD platforms, with Netflix handling the international release scheduled sometime soon.

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