In the crazy world of cinema a seasoned actor or actress can sometimes find themselves inextricably bound to their big screen personas. In other words they can build such a reputation through their characters that they create a very specific appeal that audiences gravitate towards. Tom Hanks is one such actor. The latter half of his career has seen Hanks turn decency into a signature as he consistently turns in one sturdy good-guy role after another.
Some actors have bucked their on-screen image to great effect. Look no further than Henry Fonda in Sergio Leone’s classic “Once Upon a Time in the West”. Shocked audiences didn’t see the blue-eyed big screen nice guy they were accustomed to. Instead they saw Fonda playing a menacing cold-blooded killer. But for Hanks it has become a genuine asset – a dependable hallmark that he has used to bring to life an assortment of memorable and endearing characters. This has never been more true than in his latest film “News of the World”.
The film sees Hanks reteaming with director Paul Greengrass. The two previously worked together on 2013’s Oscar-nominated “Captain Phillips”. Instead of the high seas this time they head to the Old West some five years after the end of the Civil War. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Confederate war veteran who now travels from town to town sharing news stories from around the world. Captain Kidd is a bit of a lost soul, haunted by demons from his past and burdened by feelings of guilt and regret. Constantly moving keeps his pain on his heels and reading the stories of others keeps him from dwelling on his own. Interestingly his melancholy and sorrow isn’t obvious right away. Kidd hides it well, but Hanks’ sad, world-weary eyes speaks volumes.
After an evening reading in Wichita Falls, Texas the Captain heads out for his next destination, coming across a wagon wreckage along the way. Among it he finds the body of a black soldier lynched by racist locals as a message to anyone who dares to challenge their pungent ideologies. He also finds a fair-skinned blonde-haired little girl, distraught and speaking no English (she’s played by the dazzling German actress Helena Zengel). The Captain discovers her paperwork and learns her name is Johanna and that the soldier was transporting her south to her Aunt and Uncle in Castroville. The papers say she was kidnapped as a child and raised by the same Kiowa￼ tribe who killed her immigrant birth parents and sister. But now she’s twice orphaned and has fallen through the crack separating two very different cultures.
Kidd refuses to leave the girl behind, and after getting the runaround at an army outpost in Dallas he commits to taking her to Castroville himself. So the two unlikely companions set out on a 400-mile trek across a lawless Reconstruction-era Texas, crossing paths with an assortment of unsavory types. Greengrass uses their journey as a means to develop a touching human bond. But he also uses it to explore the complex anatomy of a turbulent America; one in the throes of some ugly and often violent growing pains. All while making some keen observations about our country’s modern day complexion.
It becomes evident over time that both Captain and Johanna are meant to represent a wounded and fractured nation. But there are so many more layers to their individual characters and their uncommon relationship. The script (written by Greengrass and Luke Davies and adapted from a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles) portrays both as tragic figures, each alone in a hard and unforgiving world. Yet their attachment grows with each ugly encounter and dangerous hardship (and there are several).
One comes when they cross paths with a thug (Michael Angelo Covino) who offers to “buy” Johanna. He doesn’t take kindly to being told “no” which leads to the film’s action high mark – a thrilling and brilliantly devised shootout set on a jagged rocky hillside. Another is when they cross into a county ran by an oppressive and bigoted gang leader named Farley (a convincingly vile Thomas Francis Murphy). A tension-soaked sequence follows that speaks to our current issue of truth versus propaganda. Thankfully there are some helpful hands along the way and they’re nicely played by some wonderful familiar faces including Ray McKinnon and Elizabeth Marvel.
“News of the World” simmers with current day relevancy, but it very much looks and feels like a classic Hollywood Western in large part thanks to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Perhaps best known for his collaborations with Ridley Scott, Wolski brings a painterly beauty to the sparse rugged territory and some of his images would feel right at home in a John Ford picture. And whether his camera is in a cramped dimly lit room full of news-hungry townsfolk or gazing over a sprawling countryside without a person in sight, his compositions crackle with life and sharp period detail.
It’s hard to believe that this is the first Western Tom Hanks has ever made. He’s such a natural fit especially at this stage of his career. But what a wonderful time for him to jump into the genre and what a great film for him to call his first. In addition to being wonderfully made and exceptionally well acted, “News of the World” is such a timely movie. Its like a soothing balm that comes at the end of a year that’s been full of division, strife, and distrust. Yet here we have a movie about the simple value of showing compassion and doing the right thing. A tender and heartfelt story about finding peace in the most unexpected of places. Yes the film prompted me to ponder our society both past and present. But it also left me with my heart full, which is feeling I welcome after a year like 2020. “News of the World” opens Christmas Day only in theaters.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS