▶︎ News of the World is streaming on Netflix from 10 February.

In his theatrical features to date, director Paul Greengrass has used the skillset from his documentary background to shape believable and immersive contexts for unfolding (often fact-based) drama. For this adaptation of Paula Jiles’s 2016 novel, set in Reconstruction Era Texas of 1870, Greengrass has toned down his trademark under-fire camera operating in favour of a more stately widescreen approach, yet for a filmmaker who’s always had one eye on the recent headlines, a revisionist western might seem like an off-kilter move.

Like so many genre offerings from the 1970s onwards however, this is another story set back then with much to say about the here and now. In an era before mass communications, Tom Hanks’s protagonist Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a newsreader, who carries local, national and international newspapers from town to town to inform an often illiterate audience eager to know what’s going on outside their communities. He’s grasped however that the medium is the message and selects material which will help the healing process after the ravages of Civil War. The emphasis on journalistic integrity and its place in unifying a divided nation could barely offer a clearer parallel to the challenges facing the new Biden presidency.

News of the World (2020)

The thematic framework doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch, and we take the point; but as drama, this careful, episodic saga never quite takes flight. Since both central characters are social misfits – Hanks haunted (not utterly convincingly) by the things he saw and did during the war, his accidental charge a white girl of German stock whose birth parents and adoptive Kiowa family have all been murdered – it’s not hard to see where the story’s going, and that’s exactly where it ends up. The child, played by German child actress Helena Zengel, is suitably flinty and feral (though even more so in Nora Fingscheidt’s German drama System Crasher, 2019, in which she made her name), while the process of language-learning en route saddles her with some impossibly wise subtitled observations, as Hanks trots out expositional dialogue his travelling companion will not understand.

Burnished landscape cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, and intermittent violent episodes handled with PG13 restraint keep us watching, though dramatic tension remains on a resolutely even keel. It’s only latterly, as both parties must confront the past to move forward, that the film’s tonal reserve pays dividends, and genuine emotion hits home, set against James Newton Howard’s decorous, sincere but never pushy orchestral score. A decent enough effort, but perhaps more was expected.

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