'News Of The World' Review: Tom Hanks Is Outstanding In Paul Greengrass' Uneven Western

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a newsman. No, he doesn't report the news. Nor does he work for a newspaper. Instead, he drifts from town to town on his rickety horse-drawn cart and brings the news to those too weary, too busy, and otherwise unable to read it themselves. For a small fee, Kidd will stand up in front of a meeting room and comb through the pages of newspapers, looking for stories to tell. And not just any stories. "Something to take us away from our troubles," he tells the crowds over and over again. It's a lovely little concept, and when you have Tom Hanks as the guy telling the stories, it's hard not to hang on every word.

In Paul GreengrassNews of the World, it's 1870. The Civil War is over, but everyone is still raw. When Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) pulls into town, tired, bitter, hurting people are more than happy to listen to his news stories. Sometimes the stories rile the crowds up. Sometimes the stories wow them. And when all is said and done, Kidd moves on. He's always on the move. He left a wife back at home he says, but he's clearly in no hurry to return to her – even if he does frequently pull out her portrait and stare at it with sad, longing eyes.

Kidd's journies lead him to come across Johanna (Helena Zengel), a child in the middle of nowhere. When she was even younger, Johanna was taken by the Kiowa people and raised as one of them. But now the government has slaughtered Johanna's Kiowa tribe, and she's meant to be returned to her (white) relatives. But the Kiowa world is all Johanna has known – she wants to go back to them, not some aunt and uncle she has no memory of. After trying to dispose of the wild, angry girl with the proper authorities, Kidd eventually relents and decides he'll return Johanna to her relatives himself. So off they go, riding in a straight line across the plains as James Newton Howard's lovely, mournful score plays on. Johanna is resistant to the journey at first, but of course, movie logic dictates that these two odd souls will grow to care for one another. To need each other.

This isn't exactly the usual Paul Greengrass material, and that's both a blessing and a curse for News of the World. Greengrass' style – lots of close-ups, lots of hand-held camera work – is at odds with the material here. Watching the camera bob up and down documentary style in this Western-setting never feels right – it keeps us from being fully immersed in the historical setting and makes the whole thing feel like cosplay.

And yet, Greengrass is also able to conjure up some beautiful, haunting imagery. A moment where Johanna spots, and then calls to Native Americans silently journeying in the rain on the other side of a raging river is powerful, as is a similar moment late in the film where Kidd and the kid get caught in a dust storm. But these moments of visual splendor clash with the rest of the movie, keeping News of the World lopsided.

Still, there's power here. Most of that power radiates from Hanks, who gives a performance that should be held up with some of his other oft-praised work. Kind but not sentimental, slow but violent when he has to be, and eternally weary, it's impossible not to be drawn to Hanks' performance here. It's a melancholy, subtle performance that works wonders. Zengel is quite good too as the feral child that goes from a burden to a blessing. She and Hanks work quite well together.

The other source of the film's power comes from its emphasis on the vitality of storytelling. The scenes where the constant journey stops, and Hanks reads to rooms of enraptured people, are the best in the film. Storytelling is magic – in the right hands, it can move mountains. It can destroy as well as create. Midway through the film, Kidd and Johanna end up in a hellish town ruled by a dictator-like figure who prints his own newspaper full of stories that convey his own greatness. He insists Kidd read from it, but Kidd turns the tables, instead telling the townsfolk a story of abused miners who rose up and fought back against cruel conditions. This sort of thing is painfully on-the-nose, but damn it, it works. It works primarily because of the way Hanks sells each line; each world; each syllable. It's wonderful to watch him work.

Moments like this are wonderful, but they're not quite enough to give News of the World the impact it desires. The drifting from town to town gives the whole thing an episodic feel, and as great as Hanks is, even his talents aren't enough to distract us from the sheer predictability of what's going on here. Predictability can be overlooked for a strong narrative, but that's just not here. It makes one wish that News of the World was as good at telling a story as Captain Kidd.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10