Is "News of the World" a new movie or an old one?
The answer may seem obvious; the western came out just a few weeks ago and is just appearing in Minnesota theaters now. But writer/director Paul Greengrass takes advantage of new/old tensions by telling a story that resembles others we know — "True Grit," "The Searchers," "Days of Heaven" — in an immediate way.
One scene that beautifully illustrates his approach occurs about halfway through this moving and exciting drama. Civil War veteran Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) has become the guardian of a mute orphan he names Johanna (Helena Zengel). Transporting her across the wilds of Texas so she can live with an aunt and uncle, he takes her to her childhood home, which is ominously deserted. Greengrass captures the two of them outside the house, viewed through a window that frames them in a near-perfect square. It looks like an image from the silent era of movies.
As Kidd and Johanna struggle to understand each other, most of "News of the World" doesn't rely on dialogue. "News" is more action-packed than the Paulette Jiles novel on which it's based, and Greengrass stages the occasional shootout with crisp efficiency, but so much of the movie consists of two people awkwardly shaping their lives to fit each other's that the dialogue, when it comes, has a totemic feel.
Capt. Kidd is a sort of town crier of the Old West, and Hanks gets one or two speeches that take advantage of his homespun Jimmy Stewartness, exhorting crowds to make their peace with the recent war. But most of his dialogue feels boiled down to its essence. I love the spareness and purity he brings to these lines: "The little girl is lost. She needs a home." "This girl is not for sale." "Going back, it's not good." "She needs new memories." There may not be an adverb in the whole script.
There are other people in "News of the World" — Mare Winningham and Elizabeth Marvel, who was in the Coen brothers' "True Grit," make brief, memorable appearances and evil varmints are tracking our heroes — but it's really about what the two leads can learn from each other. Each has experienced loss and each finds a measure of peace in the kindness of putting another person before themselves.
It's a sentimental tale, but the quiet simplicity of Greengrass' images helps whenever things threaten to get goopy. Greengrass also was smart to reunite with Hanks, who starred memorably in his "Captain Phillips" and whose movie-star charisma gives this little story extra oomph. Most of the experiences that have shaped Kidd and Johanna occur before we meet them, but with a few rueful looks and references to a deceased wife, Hanks gets us up to speed.
Hanks helps us see that "News of the World" is a movie in which two people, haunted by the past, realize that, as Robert Frost said, "the only way out is through."
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
News of the World
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for violence, thematic material and some language.
Where: In theaters now, streaming on-demand Fri.