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Helena Zengel as Johanna Leonberger and Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd in News of the World.

Universal Pictures

  • News of the World
  • Directed by Paul Greengrass
  • Written by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles
  • Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel and Mare Winningham
  • Classification PG; 118 minutes

rating

2.5 out of 4 stars

This Christmas Day, assuming you have access to both Netflix and an operational movie theatre (a big ask, I realize), you can choose between two shiny new Hollywood movies that are essentially the same.

The Midnight Sky, on Netflix, stars a grizzled icon (George Clooney) facing a harsh landscape (the postapocalyptic Arctic) while entrusted with the care of a young, mostly mute girl. Meanwhile, News of the World, only in theatres, stars an equally if not more so grizzled icon (Tom Hanks) facing a harsh landscape (post-Civil War Texas) while entrusted with the care of a young, mostly mute girl. While neither film is going to make your 2020 Christmas worth remembering, do yourself a favour and place your faith in Hanks.

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Hanks plays a Civil War veteran who now makes a living going from town to town to read newspapers to people who have neither the time nor the education to do so.

Universal Pictures

The Midnight Sky, as detailed elsewhere, is an exercise in frustration. News of the World offers some of that, too – mostly in how director Paul Greengrass, normally such a pro at this thanks to Captain Phillips and his Bourne films, stages some of the most tension-free action pieces in recent memory. But ultimately there is more sincerity and purpose in one of Hanks’s whiskers here than in the otherwise impressive mostly-salt-but-some-pepper beard that Clooney sports in his big-budget adventure.

Based on the 2016 novel by Canadian author Paulette Jiles, News of the World casts Hanks as Captain Kidd, a Civil War veteran who now makes a living going from town to town to read newspapers to people who have neither the time nor education to do so. Consider him the original paywall.

After a fateful encounter, Kidd is entrusted with the young Johanna (Helena Zengel), who was taken by the Kiowa people years ago, and has now lost her adoptive family, too. Thanks to the lag of Reconstruction Era bureaucracy, Kidd must shepherd Johanna to her faraway aunt and uncle, fending off scoundrels and the girl’s own apprehensions along the way.

Hanks is sturdy as ever, grounding the proceedings in a warm sense of familiar, fatherly comfort.

Universal Pictures

Think The Searchers in reverse, although I’m not above the suspicion that Greengrass simply wanted to make another movie in which he could call Hanks “Captain.” Because otherwise, there’s not much to this A-to-Z tale. Hanks is sturdy as ever, grounding the proceedings in a warm sense of familiar, fatherly comfort. But the rest of the film feels weightless, and at parts unbelievably dumb. One mid-film shootout in particular is executed with such listlessness that it’s a wonder Greengrass was able to stay awake while filming it.

News of the World does provide an interesting cap to Hanks’s year, though. Between this, his Second World War naval thriller Greyhound, and contracting COVID-19, the actor has fit in several generations’ worth of American trauma into a tidy 12-month stretch. O Captain, my captain – let us hope our fearful trip is now done.

News of the World opens in Canadian theatres Dec. 25, dependent on local health restrictions

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