Review: Tom Hanks leads brilliant, soulful western 'News of the World'
Courtesy of Universal
The definition of “Don’t shoot the messenger” takes human form in Paul Greengrass’ brilliant “News of the World,” his first pairing with Tom Hanks since “Captain Phillips.” Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a war veteren who travels from town to town five years after the Civil War, to read the news in a post Reconstruction-era Texas. But he doesn’t just read the news, he brings it to vivid life with sound effects and a loud commanding voice. In the era of “Fake News” and the political divide across our country, I’d pay good money to hear Kidd relay the news of today. In any case, “News of the World” is an epic, immersive western that gives Hanks a steady character to lean on and his best role since the aforementioned “Captain Phillips.”
Rarely does the beloved icon miss the mark (through “Greyhound” proved that theory wrong) and his reteaming with Greengrass is a textbook actor and director collaboration that remains canon. “News of the World” casts an intimate gaze on the Western genre, and though Greengrass usually dabbles with action thrillers ala “Jason Bourne,” it’s remarkable to watch him expand on his filmography and use inspiration from “True Grit” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to deliver an old-fashion Hollywood movie that, simply, doesn’t get made in the age of streaming. Granted, I screened the film from the comfort of my home, but “News of the World” begs to be seen in a movie theater.
“News of the World” touches on many themes, including the dangers lurking in the wild west. Chance encounters and detours that lead to shoot-outs, close calls, and quick innovation populate Kidd’s journey. He never meets the same characters twice, except for 10-year old Johanna (Helena Zengel - flawless) who was found abandoned on the road while Kidd was en route to his next gig. A German immigrant raised by the Kiowa tribe and not speaking a word of English, Johanna becomes Captain Kidd’s primary objective. He learns she’s been taken against her will to live with an aunt and uncle on their farm near San Antonio and Kidd - thanks to lawmen who couldn't care less - has been assigned with transporting the child safely.
That task begins a six-day hike, and Kidd still has newspapers to read so Johanna will have to tag along, but this is 1870 and the journey isn’t seamless. One temporary solution after the other falls through, forcing the pair into sticky situations that are thrilling to watch untangle. The first of which revolves around Confederate soldier Almay (Michael Angelo Covino - last seen in “The Climb”) and his cronies who try to purchase Johanna. When Kidd refuses, a tense twenty-minute standoff in the rocky hills ensues. Greengrass and editor William Goldberg swiftly keep this sequence moving, never stopping to slow down the action.
Ironically, that brawl occurs about 45 minutes into the picture, thus giving “News of the World” an almost climatic feeling. The cool down takes its toll, giving the movie unreasonable expectations to follow, but thanks to Hanks and Zengel’s earnest chemistry, the brief lapse doesn’t hinder its momentum. If anything, James Newton Howard’s bold and infectious score is enough glue to help maneuver from one sequence to the next.
A second villainous character arises through a mustache twirling lord named Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) who bellows his clan of soldiers have scalped countless Indians as Kidd and Johanna attempt to pass through his territory. In a striking parallel to our current political and media climate, Farley insists the Captain entertain townsfolk with readings of a propagandic newspaper he self-publishes, but then scowls when Kidd refuses to peddle his nonsense and deliver the truth.
While there’s plenty of rousing and nail-biting moments like that one, “News of the World” finds its best moments among the Captain and Johanna overcoming their incomprehension and responding to each other’s understanding of the world. Hanks conveys a sense of wonder and astonishment at how this young girl managed to survive on her own. Matching him moment for moment, Zengel brings a raw and emotional performance to the table that stands among some of the best children portrayals of recent memory.
Adapted by Greengrass and Luke Davies (“Lion”) from the novel by Paulette Jiles of the same name, “News of the World'' - bolstered by detailed costume design, lustrous cinematography, and the captivating story of two refugees navigating their troubles – proves a wild departure from what audiences are used to seeing from Greengrass. But watching him explore the muddy terrain of gritty westerns, delivering a gentle message about finding peace in our future, is a headline worth reading.
NEWS OF THE WORLD opens in theaters Christmas Day and will release on PVOD in mid-January.
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