Tom Hanks is the kind of actor about whom we accept the aphorism that he could read the phone book and make it sound great. Reuniting Hanks with “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass, laconic Western “News of the World” tests that theory by casting the star as a news reader, a Civil War veteran who travels across Texas to deliver the nation’s headlines to small-town residents hungry for updates from afar — and the result, while gorgeous to behold, is only slightly more exciting than the phone book option might have been.
For a dime a head, crowds congregate to hear Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) recite stories culled from various broadsheets — news that ranges from Reconstruction policies to miners’ strikes. It’s a fascinating occupation, especially in light of where attitudes toward “the media” stand today, reflective of a time when the public didn’t take 24/7 news coverage for granted, and when it wasn’t nearly so skeptical of whatever political agenda might be lurking in the publishers’ hearts.
But “News of the World” doesn’t dwell much on Capt. Kidd’s job. Adapted by Greengrass and Luke Davies (“Lion”) from Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel, this is a straightforward road movie more concerned with Hanks’ uncommon travel companion — call it “Captain Kidd and the Kid.” Very early in the film, Hanks’ character comes across Johanna (Helena Zengel), a young German girl, hardly 10 years old, who had been kidnapped by the Kiowa and is now due to be escorted to her only surviving kin, an aunt and uncle down in Castroville. “An orphan twice over,” Johanna doesn’t speak, doesn’t remember even the basics of her upbringing (fork and knife are as foreign to her as the English language) and doesn’t have any interest in traveling for days to meet these relatives.
What we have here is a cross between two classic John Wayne movies: “The Searchers” and “True Grit.” In the former, Wayne played a Civil War vet determined to rescue Natalie Wood from Comanche, only to discover that she’s experiencing a form of Stockholm syndrome, reluctant to return to white society. In the latter, the Duke embodied ornery, eye-patched U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, who accompanies an orphaned farm girl as she avenges her parents’ murder.
These are promising reference points, although Hanks doesn’t fill the boots of the frontier scalawag in quite the way Wayne did. He’s too likable a star from the outset, practically genteel in his comportment, whereas the film’s arc asks us to accept him as a damaged loner, grouchy about being saddled with such a responsibility as this uncommunicative and seemingly ungrateful child. For this dynamic to work, we have to believe that both parties would rather not be sharing one another’s company. Zengel is convincingly obstinate (if no fun to be around), whereas Hanks comes across as an adoptive father figure from the get-go.
Director Sam Mendes attempted such against-type casting with Hanks 18 years ago on “Road to Perdition,” featuring him as a hired gun on the run with his son, and it was tough buying the actor in that capacity there too (although that film offered more action). In “News of the World,” Capt. Kidd and Johanna need to get from point A to point B without getting killed, and we can be fairly certain that one of two things will happen: Either one of them will die en route, or they’ll reach the drop-off and realize they actually belong together.
Suspense is not the film’s strong suit, and while the trek in between needn’t be dull, Greengrass has made it curiously unengaging. The road genre is episodic by its very nature, and yet, apart from a showdown with a man named Almay (Michael Angelo Covino, so great in “The Climb”) who wants to “buy” Johanna for purposes of prostitution, this quest is disappointingly incident deficient — which is to say, boring.
Young actor Zengel projects a wonderfully defiant attitude, though the scenery proves consistently more satisfying than what’s happening in the foreground as Capt. Kidd spouts exposition to a character who doesn’t understand English. On the open plains, they compare vocabulary, which is about as thrilling as it sounds.
Things pick up during the Almay segment, inspiring a high-speed chase on horses that abruptly cuts from late night to the following day, suggesting miles and miles of pursuit. It’s one of the more impressive passages of the book as well, as Jiles describes the shrewd survivalist instincts that allow Capt. Kidd and Johanna to outwit the bandits who outnumber them. In the film, Greengrass and Davies invent a situation in which the two characters work together to defend themselves, including a clever bit where Johanna turns a can full of dimes into a deadly weapon.
The movie could have used more such scenes, or a bit more meat to this one. As presented, the shootout feels clipped and unnecessarily brutal, shocking in its violence, yet clearly of the mind that it would be unseemly to linger on the carnage. Characters die in a spray of blood, and the movie moves on right away — conceived as a sign of good taste, and yet, the stark split-second image of someone dying (or later, Kidd’s horse tumbling down a hill) somehow feels more exploitative than staring might have been.
As Capt. Kidd says of this altercation in the book, “Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.” Proud as Jiles must be of this judgment, it’s not a sentiment we can easily imagine Hanks uttering, which suggests the gap between the author’s image of the character and the one Greengrass and Hanks have created. Beats me why the pair felt compelled to make this movie. Unless they’re “The Wild Bunch” bloody (à la “Django Unchained” and the Coens’ “True Grit” remake), Westerns do notoriously poor business with contemporary audiences. And if it’s a genre that appeals to Greengrass and Hanks, there are countless better novels from which to draw.
Greengrass, best known for the jittery, immersive approach he brought to the “Bourne” sequels, has slipped back into a more classical mode here. The film’s stately aesthetic no doubt owes in part to working with DP Dariusz Wolski, a regular Ridley Scott collaborator who delivers crisp, high-definition widescreen vistas (lensed in New Mexico, doubling for Texas), some of them downright painterly, amid all that golden dirt.
It all builds to a big dust storm, which would have been the showstopper, had it not been upstaged by the relatively low-budget “Dreamland” earlier in the fall. “News of the World” may work for those who find themselves invested in the relationship between this wounded officer and his feral charge, but as the story of a man who reads the news to “anyone with 10 cents and the time to hear it,” your time and your dime might be better invested somewhere else.