News of the World
Tom Hanks jumps into the western genre for the first time with this empathetic, absorbing and excellent film.
January 28, 2021
UPDATE, February 10, 2021: News of the World is currently screening in Australian cinemas, and is also available to stream via Netflix from Wednesday, February 10.
The first time that Tom Hanks was nominated for an Oscar, it was for munching on baby corn spears like they were full-sized cobs. His nod for Big stemmed from more than just that scene, but the way he handled the tiny vegetables perfectly illustrates how, at his best, he can make anything look and feel convincing. He didn't win for the 1989 comedy, and he hasn't taken home an Academy Award since he went two for two with 1994's Philadelphia and 1995's Forrest Gump; however that skill has remained a vital reason for his prolonged success. And, it applies equally to the silliest roles on his resume — early movies Splash, Turner & Hooch and The 'Burbs, for instance — and to the far more serious and subtle parts. Last year's Oscar-nominated performance in A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood typifies the latter, and featured Hanks in such exceptional form that it couldn't have been easier to see him as children's presenter Mr Rogers. His latest great film, western News of the World, also belongs in the same category. This time around, Hanks plays a Civil War veteran-turned-travelling newsman who becomes saddled with escorting a child back to her family, and he's as gripping and compelling to watch as he's ever been.
Hanks' character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, is a travelling newsman in the very literal and era-appropriate sense. He journeys from town to town to read newspapers to amassed crowds for ten cents a person, all so folks across America can discover what's going on — not just locally, but around the country and the world. Then, on one otherwise routine trip in 1870, he passes an overturned wagon. Only a blonde-haired ten-year-old girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel, System Crasher), remains alive. Kidd soon discovers that she had been abducted by the Kiowa people years earlier during a raid that saw her entire family slaughtered, and was then raised as one of their own, but she has now been left homeless after more violence. The wagon was transporting Johanna to her last remaining relatives and, in the absence of any officials willing to take over — or ensure her safety until they get around to setting off — Kidd reluctantly agrees to the task. Reading the news is still part of their trek, but so is avoiding the many dangers that plague their ride across Texas' golden-hued landscape.
If the sight of a wearied Hanks donning a wide-brimmed hat, sitting atop a trusty horse and galloping across scrubby plains feels unfamiliar, that's because it hasn't happened before — with News of the World marking his first-ever western more than four decades after he made his acting debut. (No, his time voicing cowboy plaything Woody in the Toy Story movies doesn't count.) Hanks is a natural fit, unsurprisingly. The grounded presence he has brought to everything from Apollo 13 to The Post couldn't pair better with a genre that trots so openly across the earth, and ties its characters' fortunes so tightly to the desolate and wild conditions that surround them, after all. As a result, the fact that News of the World eagerly recalls previous western standouts such as The Searchers and True Grit doesn't ever become a drawback. Instead, this adaptation of Paulette Jiles' 2016 novel makes a purposeful effort to put its star in the same company as the many on-screen talents who've shone in — and strutted and scowled through — the genre. Hanks takes to the saddle like he's been perched upon one his entire career, of course, and takes to Kidd's lone-rider status with the same naturalistic air as well.
Indeed, Hanks plays Kidd as an everyman, another key trait that's served him excellently for years — but the ex-soldier is also a wanderer for a reason. A handful of poignant scenes help shade in the character's painful past, and make it plain why his eventual connection with Johanna is perhaps a bigger deal for him than it is for her. They're an ideal match, actually, even if it doesn't instantly seem like it. He's quiet and stoic, she's unafraid to voice her displeasure, and a father-daughter rapport slowly springs. But Hanks isn't the only actor who ensures that this pairing works so disarmingly well, with his young co-star just as phenomenal. For anyone who saw Zengel's performance in 2019's System Crasher, which won the pre-teen the German Film Prize for Best Actress, that won't come as even the slightest surprise.
Also pivotal to News of the World is filmmaker Paul Greengrass, who directs Hanks for the second time following Captain Phillips. Working with a script co-written with Australian screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion, Beautiful Boy, Angel of Mine), the United 93, 22 July and three-time Bourne franchise helmer opts for a more polished visual approach than he's known for — less frenetic and jittery, and noticeably so, but with imagery that still pulsates with emotion. When Kidd and Johanna find trouble along their trek, including from a shady trio with despicable intentions, Greengrass expertly ramps up the pace without ever letting the film's classic feel subside. With stellar assistance from cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) and editor William Goldenberg (an Oscar-winner for Argo), he ensures that the wagon chase and cliffside shootout that ensue are as tense and thrilling as they are exacting and meticulous. And, when his central duo arrive in a town where the local heavy (Thomas Francis Murphy, The Secrets We Keep) isn't keen on any news he doesn't approve of, he never overemphases the contemporary parallels with today's political cries against the media.
Greengrass also fills News of the World with a top-notch supporting lineup, including Deadwood's Ray McKinnon, True Grit's Elizabeth Marvel, Hanks' Turner & Hooch love interest Mare Winningham and The Queen's Gambit's Bill Camp — a touch indicative of the film's finesse on every level. In fact, as perfectly cast and reliably great as Hanks is here, in the latest role that's likely to see awards nominations come his way, the empathetic and absorbing movie he's in meets him at every turn.
Image: Bruce W Talamon/Universal Pictures/Netflix.