Greengrass chooses to emphasise action and let the characters’ feelings stay largely in the background. In a rickety horse-drawn wagon, Kidd and Johanna travel through dusty towns and empty plains, on roads full of the kind of peril you’d expect from a Western. When three men in Dallas try to buy and then steal Johanna – villains we’d now call sex traffickers – Kidd races away with her, pursued by the men. They have a long shootout, with Kidd hiding behind rocks and the men trying to ambush him. There is a wagon disaster and a ferocious dust storm, the action handled with the velocity and immediacy that Greengrass brought to his Jason Bourne films.
Violence is everywhere, partly, as Kidd says, due to “Settlers killing Indians for their land. Indians killing settlers for taking it”, and Civil War divisions between North and South in the towns Kidd visits. “The war is over. We have to stop fighting sometime,” he says. But the film never delves too far into the period’s social issues. Emphasising the action also slights the most original aspect of the plot: Kidd’s profession. Jiles’s novel makes a great deal of his role as storyteller, not just newsreader. He brings people accounts of hope and progress as well as disaster. The film merely nods in that intriguing direction.
Although the individual episodes are gripping, the plot trajectory is obvious, especially when we arrive at an ending that’s easy to see from the start. But it works because there is something quietly miraculous about the way Hanks embodies this character, making him the stirring and fresh emotional centre of a beautifully old-fashioned Western.
News of the World is released in cinemas in the US and Canada on 25 December 2020, and internationally on Netflix in 2021.
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