Review: News of the World (2020)

Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenwriters: Luke Davies, Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, Ray McKinnon
Genres: Action/Adventure, Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material, and some language
Release Dates: 12/25/20 (Theatres); 1/15/21 (VOD)
Runtime: 1h 58min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
Where to Watch: Rent/Buy
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Supporting Actress (Zengel), Original Score; Possible–Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Production Design, Sound, Make-up/Hairstyling; Long-Shot–Actor (Hanks)

With such talent behind and in front of a camera, you’d expect News of the World to have more of a lasting impact and to cause viewers to be invested in the story. That’s not to say that it’s completely devoid of talent and emotion; rather, with the one and only Tom Hanks as the lead, and acclaimed director Paul Greengrass (United 93) directing and co-writing the adaptation, you’d expect more. Greengrass has a unique, signature style, which is why it’s disappointing to see how standard and predictable his adaptation is. 

It’s an interesting story: a former Civil War Captain (Hanks) ends up being tasked with — by a chance encounter — transporting a young girl (relative newcomer Helena Zengel) across the war-torn South. She accompanies him as he provides townsfolk with news around the country, which is actually the most interesting part of the story. Hanks still has such a likable, dad-like quality that it’s easy to listen to him tell him the most mundane-seeming stories. There’s a reason critics have deemed Hanks to be in “peak paternal mode” here; although his chemistry with young Zengel isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, it’s hard not to want him to become her dad. 

Hanks’ performance isn’t particularly showy, although that’s not really what the role requires. He does a have a stand-out emotional moment at the end of the film, but mostly he’s solid, as always. Zengel isn’t necessarily the revelatory young actress we’ve come to expect with roles like this — she’s nowhere near as extraordinary as, say, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit (robbed of an Oscar) — but her ability to speak multiple languages is impressive. She seems to be heading towards an Oscar nomination, and, while I think her work is admirably good, it’s not that good.  

I wish Greengrass had taken more narrative risks with the story, which is fairly flat in segments. There’s an action-packed scene that takes place far too early, as what follows is so slow that it seems to drag. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I don’t always dislike movies that take their time; sometimes this is a good thing, but here, it’s mostly not. There are some things that just don’t logically make sense, such as why Hanks’ former Captain, who [we assume] fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War, is a good person who seems opposed to slavery. His Confederacy allegiance should be something that plays a major role in this story, but it puzzlingly doesn’t.

And, yet, despite its flaws, I enjoyed News of the World in some scenes, especially in the ones in which Hanks’ Captain delivers the news. It’s also beautifully shot, with exceptional production and costume design. It seems possible for it to receive multiple Oscar nominations in the technical categories. James Newton Howard’s score is also gorgeous, although the film itself could never match the scope of the music. 

News of the World doesn’t add up to a whole lot, and is a disappointing step back for Greengrass. Although, how can I give a truly bad review to anything that stars Tom freakin’ Hanks?