Tom Hanks is such an iconic American actor, it may come as a surprise that he’s never done a Western. Yet, 2020 marks the year in which he first heads out on to the frontier. Partnering with his Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass, Hanks embarks on a very familiar mission in News of the World, but that’s not the whole story. As much as this film has a plot that you’ll recognize, it’s also very much a throwback to a traditional kind of Western. What could have seemed overly covered territory is given a classical sheen, between Greengrass trying out a new moviemaking style, as well as Hanks giving his all in the central role. The end result may not be the full-on Best Picture player some were hoping for, but it makes for a rock solid movie, regardless.
News of the World was clearly meant to be seen on the big screen. That goes without saying. However, once you watch the flick, it becomes even clearly. The cinematography and scope were meant to wash over you on the largest screen possible. Of course, Greengrass and Hanks made this film before the world ended, so there’s that. Obviously, it’ll be available in theaters, but for more than ever, this is the year where first run features are being seen at home. So, this one faces an interesting challenge in getting its full effectiveness appreciated by viewers.
Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) brings the news to his fellow Americans. Now five years removed from fighting in the war, Kidd moves from small town to small town as a non-fiction storyteller, sharing the news of the day. Reading it to the townsfolk, he informs them and engages them, weaving facts into tales. It’s a solitary life, but one that’s quieter than combat, while also letting him ruminate over regrets from his past. One day, while traversing the plains of Texas, Kidd crosses paths with Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old girl abandoned on a lonely stretch of road. Protecting her and taking her with him, he gathers that she was once taken in by the Kiowa people and raised as one of their own. Hoping to reunite her with her family, Kidd stops at the next town and is met with indifference by the government. So, the job falls to him.
Tasked with returning the girl or leaving her, he has Johanna join him on his ventures. As Kidd tries to bond with her, he sees her curiosity, as well as her stubbornness. Moreover, where she belongs and where the government says she belongs may well be two different places. Of course, to even reach that destination, Kidd must traverse hundreds of miles with her, stopping to read the news along with the way. Through it all, they’ll face the best and worst of humanity, as well as nature, in all its harshness. Coming alive in the third act, News of the World ultimately has something to say about the value of truth over fake news, though it’s very much a Western at its core, ruminating on how a country and its people angry at each other is doomed to pain.
Tom Hanks, unsurprisingly, is a great choice for this role. His inherent decency and humanity give Jefferson Kyle Kidd the true north that the character needs. Operating more with his wits than his weapons, he’s not quite a cowboy, but very much a staple of the Western genre. How Kidd navigates one tricky situation with just the truth is a tremendous bit of acting by Hanks. Young Helena Zengel is a real find, doing a lot without much dialogue. Zengel has low-key chemistry with Hanks, which certainly helps as well. The supporting players, including Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon, and Mare Winningham, are effective, if very much in the shadows of Hanks and Zengel.
Paul Greengrass is well known for a very specific type of filmmaking, but this is a hard right turn for him. Not only is the screenplay he co-wrote with Luke Davies (adapting Paulette Jiles‘ novel), more sweeping and classical than what he normally tackles, his direction is different, too. Instead of close-ups and shaky cam work suggesting a You are There approach, he goes for old school cinema. This is no docudrama, folks. James Newton Howard‘s score and Dariusz Wolski‘s cinematography are highlights, too, so Greengrass trying something new pays off.
What prevents the film from being as spectacular as its potential is how long it takes to fully invest you. The first two acts are fine, but it isn’t until the end that it starts to fire on all cylinders. That’s a script failing on the part of Davies and Greengrass. It’s fits and starts until a sandstorm arrives on the scene. From there, things definitely pick up, and the movie trends upwards.
In terms of awards, News of the World offers up a unique contender for voters. It has a lot of the trappings of a traditional Academy Award player, but are members of the Academy in that mood? If so, the film could dominate the technical fields of the Oscar nominations. If they’re not, it may be a harder sell. Right now, I see it splitting the difference, potentially slipping into Best Picture, while seeming like a solid bet for nominations in the categories of Best Cinematography and Best Original Score. Watching for Best Costume Design and Best Sound citations, too.
News of the World isn’t trying to change cinema. Instead, it’s just a classical movie that breathes life into the Western without being a revisionist. Tom Hanks is a reliable leader to take you on this journey, it looks and sounds amazing, while the little bits about the value of news and truth ring true in 2020. Don’t think of it in solely Oscar terms and you’ll undoubtedly be satisfied.