News of the World   ★★★★

Dec. 25

Going to the movies will never be the same again. That much is clear now. The COVID-19 pandemic has radically upended every component of the Hollywood movie-making machine, from production through exhibition. That this can be considered a minor side effect of the pandemic is testament to the relentless trauma we’re enduring.

It’s still a tragedy though, and now we have a sad Exhibit A to illustrate the loss. News of the World, the new film from Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass, is the kind of old-school Hollywood prestige picture that is designed to be shown on big silver screens to packed cinema audiences. It’s a throwback kind of movie—a huge, honking Western drama with sprawling, painterly vistas of big-sky, pioneer America.

You can technically still see it in theaters in North Carolina—at least, as of press time—but they won’t be packed. Although it’s a Christmas film, most people who see it will wait until it cycles to a streaming service in a few months. (Netflix, according to trade reports.) News of the World will become yet another television experience, experienced individually instead of collectively. That’s a shame.

Set in Texas five years after the Civil War, the film stars Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a lonesome ex-soldier who travels from town to town with a collection of newspapers, reading aloud to gathered crowds. Captain Kidd is the latest incarnation of an ancient mythic type: the storyteller, bringing instruction and hope to the people.

One fateful day, on a trail between towns, Captain Kidd encounters Johanna, a ten-year-old German immigrant who has been raised by the native Kiowa people since her parents were killed six years earlier. Now her Kiowa family is dead, too. “She’s an orphan twice-over,” someone says. It falls to Captain Kidd to protect Johanna and escort her to relatives: an uncle and aunt on a San Antonio farm.

What follows is a thrilling and emotionally intense Western fable, with the reluctant Kidd learning to care for his wild-child ward as she helps him open his heart again. This movie is built to move you. Children-in-peril stories snag me every time—and of course, no one is better than Hanks at projecting decency, resolve, and nuclear-grade poignancy.

Greengrass stages several individual set pieces that play like short stories in themselves: an outlaw company town run by a proto-corporate baron; an absolutely haunting encounter with the Kiowa people, moving like specters through the dust. (I had several dreams about that one.) 

As a visual stylist, Greengrass is an underappreciated savant. Each shot is precisely calibrated to lead your eye where Greengrass wants it to go. He can tell whole stories just by moving his camera.

A former journalist, Greengrass is also known for stitching contemporary issues into the fabric of his films. He does so again here, layering in subtextual commentary about immigration, cultural otherness, “fake news,” and the cancerous nature of American political partisanship. We’ve been using the Western genre to talk to ourselves for decades. With News of the World, Greengrass and his collaborators are participating in a proud old Hollywood tradition.

None of this works without Hanks, who has evolved into our best and most beloved old-fashioned movie star. He performs a kind of artistic service here, I think—embodying the better angels of our national character once again. 

News of the World is one of the year’s best films, and it sucks that most people won’t see it on the big screen. If you choose not to, I don’t blame you. But keep it in your pocket for later.

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