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News of the World
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Kidds Say The Darndest Things"
3 stars

After appearing earlier this year in the WWII submarine drama “Greyhound,” you might think that it would be impossible for Tom Hanks to find another film that projected as much of a “Dad movie” vibe as it did. However, he has managed to just that with his latest film, “News of the World,” a low-key Western that is about as familiar and non-threatening as an old shoe. Under normal circumstances, that would not necessarily be a problem but considering the potentially provocative nature of the material, it seems strange that it has been presented in such a declawed and decidedly benign manner.

Set in 1870, during the still-tense period of Reconstruction, Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Confederate veteran who now makes a living by going from one remote town to the next to stage public gatherings in which he reads the newspapers aloud to the populace. Since he spends most of his time in the South, where any news regarding the federal government is liable to inspire scorn or worse, he tends to avoid those as much as possible in order to stick to less inflammatory human interest stories. While traveling to his next destination, he comes across the site of a recent ambush and finds a single survivor, a young white girl whom he eventually discovers is named Johanna (Helena Zengel) and who had been raised as a Kiowa. Due to circumstances beyond his control, Kidd finds himself charged with transporting Johanna to some distant relatives hundreds of miles away on a dangerous journey in which they go through everything from gun battles to finding themselves in a town totally dominated by a single businessman who insists that Kidd read his own self-published newspaper instead. In a surprise development, these events, not to mention his growing affection for Johanna, help to pry Kidd out of the shell that he has been in since losing everything in the war and reconnect with all of those feelings and emotions in scenes seemingly designed to be shown during the Oscar broadcast.

There are, of course, any number of parallels between the story of “News of the World” and contemporary American life, primarily in the vital importance of getting the news of what is going on free of manipulation from those who seek to profit off of the ignorance of others. In Paul Greegrass, it even has the kind of filmmaker who would seem on the surface to be the ideal person to tell such a story in a suitably compelling manner. That makes it even more surprising to discover just how bland and wishy-washy the whole enterprise, based on Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel, truly is. Other than the very basics, we get no real sense of who Kidd is (especially regarding his fighting for the Confederacy), how he managed to get into his particular line of work or how he feels about having to present barely newsworthy items to audiences who are clearly still reveling in the kind of mindset that brought about the war that cost him virtually everything. Instead, he gets shackled with the little girl as the film tries to become another “True Grit,” right down to Kidd’s somewhat florid language, but as they go from one elaborately mounted set piece to the next, nothing seems to have any real consequence and while the rapport between Hanks and newcomer Zengel is nice enough, it simply isn’t enough to put the film over. (Trust me, there isn’t a speck of anything resembling grit, true or otherwise, to be had here.)

In essence, “News of the World” is about a man who, at least until he eventually has his cathartic moment of self-realization, claims to share the important news to his audiences but only serves up pablum as a means of self-preservation against those who might think poorly of him for saying anything that might challenge them or force them to examine their own beliefs a little more closely. The trouble is that the film as a whole succumbs to the same mindset as its hero, minus the self-realization.

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originally posted: 12/24/20 01:22:42
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