News of the World: Tom Hanks brings throwback Western to life

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·Contributor
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Streamer: out now in Australian cinemas

Length: 118 minutes

Score: 3.5/5

It’s weird to think about how we used to consume news media before the internet. Do you remember it at all? There were these things called newspapers, and they were printed on cheap paper and the ink would get all over your hands as you read them. And after you were finished? You’d use the pages to line the budgie’s cage.

Old school, readers. Old. Flippin’. School.

Johanna (Helena Zengel) is none too pleased with Captain Kidd's (Tom Hanks) insistence that she take 1870s public transport aka "walking". Photo: Universal.
Johanna (Helena Zengel) is none too pleased with Captain Kidd's (Tom Hanks) insistence that she take 1870s public transport aka "walking". Photo: Universal.

Things were even more archaic back in the American Old West, at least according to the latest Paul Greengrass film News of the World. In this lyrical yarn, former Confederate soldier Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) lobs from town to town, reading the newspaper to crowds of people who can afford the ten cent entry fee.

As far as livings go, it’s not a great one, but it keeps Kidd on the road and not dealing with certain mysterious past events. Everything changes when he comes across a scene of death and devastation. A wagon has been turned over, some people killed, and the only survivor is a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel), although she prefers “Cicada”.

Despite his many attempts to get rid of her, Kidd ends up stuck with the kid. He’s tasked with getting Johanna back to her surviving family and the sooner the better. So, the unlikely duo embarks on a journey across America’s west, a land that still bears the scars of a recent civil war, looking for a chance at redemption along the way.

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Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) and Johanna's (Helena Zengel) odyssey through the Old West takes them to some less than desirable places. Photo: Universal.
Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) and Johanna's (Helena Zengel) odyssey through the Old West takes them to some less than desirable places. Photo: Universal.

News of the World is an old fashioned western yarn, an episodic road movie of sorts, with incisive social commentary and a surprising amount of action. Hanks, now an old hand at playing gruff-but-good-hearted father figures is typically convincing and German actress Helena Zengel is a great find, managing to embody her lost and feral character with conviction.

However, the real star of News of the World is its setting. 1870s America is a land of deep division, living in the aftermath of a time when neighbour fought neighbour on ideological grounds. There are roaming bands of dehumanised ex-soldiers, self-aggrandising militias who want to cleanse the country of “outsiders” and people who simply can’t let go of their outdated, reactionary dogma.

So, you know, quite a bit like modern-day America, then [sips tea].

"Okay, now I'm going to read ya'll some mean tweets!" It was a simpler time, readers. Photo: Universal.
"Okay, now I'm going to read ya'll some mean tweets!" It was a simpler time, readers. Photo: Universal.

Co-writer and director Paul Greengrass doesn’t lay on the allegory too thickly, mind you. This is an entertaining, engaging story first and foremost. There are many memorable, tense set-pieces too, particularly when Kidd has to read the news to a town of violent malcontents or another striking moment when our heroes get lost in a fierce dust storm.

There’s also something fascinating, perhaps even nostalgic, about the notion of a town’s worth of people gathering to hear the news read. Coming together and listening to the stories of the day, as opposed to doom scrolling in the toilet. It speaks of a time when people trusted the news, believed the media and there’s something rather bittersweet about that.

We don’t get many westerns these days and this movie is a reminder of the sheer versatility of the genre. Boasting two stellar lead performances, a solid, intriguing script and superb direction from Paul Greengrass, News of the World a gentle, old fashioned but beguiling trek through history with plenty to say about the present day.

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