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Father Vince Gives a 'Meh' to 'News of the World'

February 27, 2021 | By

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary (or other) works adapted into TV or movies.

News of the World, co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass, based on the novel of the same title by Paulette Jiles.

Following last year, when movie theaters shuttered and studios indefinitely shelved many of their films, the pool from which the Academy selects its films shrunk dramatically. Having watched nearly all the to-be-nominated films, I can state I generally liked all of them, but there’s not a single film I would click “rent” again, let alone consider hitting the “buy” button.

(Note: As of this writing, the Oscar nominations haven't been announced yet, but News of the World did get a Writers Guild Awards nod for adapted screenplay. Click here for the whole list.)

Missing too, was the radically secular film in the form of Parasite or The Favourite acknowledging the divide in our culture, thus evoking an immediate visceral response of “love it” or “hate it.” It’s been the year of the “meh” for the silver screen. Tom Hanks’ star turn in News of the World sets up residence in that “meh."

It’s a shame, because the film’s message lands squarely in Family Theater Productions’ wheelhouse: a family-themed story that all members could sit down and watch together. Hanks plays a grizzled Civil War veteran (in the novel, a vet three times over: adding the wars of 1812 and Mexican-American) reluctantly protecting Johanna (Helena Zengel), she, twice an orphan.

The road film reminded me of St. Joseph, who, despite initial misgivings, eventually decides to foster and protect the Christ Child. The problem, though is that I discovered this subtext almost immediately while watching the film.

It’s as if marketers produced the movie the same way that Greyhound came off as a puff piece further bolstering Tom Hanks’ public image. Disney’s excellent The Mandalorian also tells a St. Joseph story, but only after I reflected upon its cultural impact when season one concluded.

The technical aspects followed a similar path. The film frames most of the action in medium and close-up shots highlighting the two leads, yet sacrifices the epic traversing of frontier Texas. Gone were the panoramic vistas of a Lawrence of Arabia, where a viewer gets a sense of snail-speed movement throughout a lengthy movie.

The film stays true to the novel (a brisk couple hundred pages), selecting lenses that compress the landscape. The two protagonists move episodically from one set piece to another, as if whisked by an Uber driver down the I-35. The Western genre, however, requires a slower, drawn-out pace to capture the sense of travel via clunky wagon.

The movie rates at PG-13, sanitizing the more R-rated brutality of the novel’s untamed West. The foster-father and daughter tale is about the only live-action mainstream family content currently out there and comes at the steep still-in-theaters rental fee of $20.

Watch it as mere distraction from our quarantine world. And maybe appreciate that, in some years, art can function as distraction without always needing to say something profound. That ebb & flow and reminder of art’s fleeting cultural import may signify things could be returning to some normalcy.

Click here for the film's homepage, and here for our earlier Q&Q with director Paul Greengrass.


Image: (From left) Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) in 'News of the World'/Photo Credit: Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures 


Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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