Synopsis: A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Covino, Fred Hechinger, Neil Sandilands, Thomas Francis Murphy, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Chukwudi Iwuji
Director: Paul Greengrass
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: As I sit here writing this in the second week of December, I realize that News of the World might just have been the last big potential Oscar nominee I would have had to see in theaters had they still been open. While this grand scale western starring one of the most trusted men in America had always been targeted for a Christmas release, a number of other titles that have been mentioned as awards contenders were slated to come out over the past eight months and who knows where we’d be right now if they’d all made their original dates. Would a film like News of the World, with its simple pleasures and old-fashioned storytelling feel as touching or impactful if we’d been inundated already with dozens of “prestige” pictures all vying for our votes?
Then again, there’s one thing all of those movies didn’t have: Tom Hanks. That good-natured, dependable force of good who can turn your frown upside down has a way with a role that makes it uniquely his. You may be able to imagine several other equally valid stars that could play the part and serve the material with grace but what Hanks can offer in terms of sincerity and core can’t be replicated by any ‘ole matinee idol or aging ‘80s action hunk. There’s a line near the end of News of the World that Hanks speaks, it’s an important line but not a gussied up one (nothing in the screenplay from director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies overreaches by much), and they way he pitches it and has it land found a way right into the center of my heart. That’s talent. It’s also why a movie like this, which is lighter on plot than a two-hour film out to be and overly episodic, even by normal page-to-screen adaptations go, lingers in the mind long after the final credits have faded.
Based on the 2016 bestseller by Paulette Jiles, the film is set in the Old West of 1870 and opens on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks, Sully) who travels from town to town reading the newspapers aloud for anyone willing to pay a dime. Choosing his articles based on the crowd and territory, he’s part showman, part newsman, but a good man in sum and total. In his latest journey between towns, he arrives at the scene of a deplorable crime and the one young survivor (Helena Zengel) who remains. Rescued from a Kiowa tribe after being taken from her immigrant family as a small child, she was being transported to her only living relatives when another tragedy struck. Realizing the only guarantee of her safe return is if he takes her, Captain Kidd agrees to accompany her on the journey home. Speaking no English, the girl longs for the tribe that she was wrenched from, making her an orphan for the second time in her short life. Yet the two disparate travelers set off on a harrowing journey, encountering dangers in each town they enter and every new territorial line they cross. His advanced age and her lack of communication initially prove to be a hinderance, especially early on when they are cornered by a trio of violent thugs, but eventually they use these as tools to bring them together the closer they come to being separated forever.
Reteaming with his Captain Phillips director, Hanks revives a few of those same silently reflective scenes that made that earlier performance so effective (and, amazingly, not recognized by the Academy) yet he pitches them with the knowledge of a longer life lived and an entire war behind him. Kidd has served his country and now serves the people by traveling around and bringing them information to make the world seem less small and their daily lives less routine. Of course, all that keeping busy is hiding a pain within himself he can’t face, not until later on in the movie, at least. Hanks has a way with achieving an almost instant audience buy-in whenever he shows up in a movie. You just sort of instantly buy him in the role. While his performance as Fred Rogers was lauded in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood last year, the movie didn’t 100% work for me but I totally bought him completely the minute he appeared onscreen. It’s probably the confidence he exudes that brings us all under his spell…but it works every time all the same.
It was important for Greengrass and, I suppose Hanks, to find the right co-star and German-born Zengel is a real discovery. Perfectly believable in a complicated role of a child stuck between two different worlds and three different languages, most of Zengel’s performance comes through in her expressive face and wide eyes, which cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (All the Money in the World) captures as beautifully as he does the pristine sights of expanse from the Old West long forgotten. It would have been easy for Zengel to tip her acting slightly more one way and lose her balancing act, making the child unbearable but she has a strong scene partner with Hanks and she encourages him to be better as well. Holding your own against such a force couldn’t have been easy but it all adds to the emotional complexity the role requires.
The supporting players are a strong mix of familiar character actors, with Elizabeth Marvel (Inheritance) being the standout among many greats as a proprietor friend of Hanks that offers some sage advice for her sometime companion. Marvel is one of those actresses that, when she shows up, you know that however long she’s on screen it’s going to be something you’ll be interested in watching and that’s completely true here. I suppose Thomas Francis Murphy’s (12 Years a Slave) grotesque manager of law and order in a civilian led town that Kidd and the girl have the misfortune of riding through could be dialed down a bit, if anything this is the sequence that has the most squirm factor. Maybe it’s because it feels like it’s out of some ghastly American take on a Dickensian Western, but then again it’s another of those episodic entries the film has which is why it may seem like it could be sliced out and removed with no one being the wiser.
A handsome production on all levels, from the visuals to the unobtrusive editing from Oscar-winner William Goldenberg (Argo), News of the World has the gleam of polish to it and deserves to look so pretty. Accompanied by another rousing score from eight-time Oscar nominee James Newtown Howard (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) that extends through the closing credits, this is full-scale entertainment at a high level – exactly what we’re almost owed at the end of this year. Hanks knows what I mean. As one of the first celebrities to experience this terrible virus, he’s been through a rough patch in 2020 but should be able to rest his head easy once the reviews for News arrive. Read all about it and see it when it arrives on Christmas Day.