On paper, a new-age western starring an aging Tom Hanks directed by Paul Greengrass should not work. It’s a combination of existing expectations and playing to strengths. But, films aren’t made on paper. Hanks, Greengrass and newcomer Helena Zengel prove more than capable of delivering a harrowing tale that relies on Hanks dependability, a grounding narrative tent-pole and top-notch crafts to deliver one of the most surprising delights of the film year.
Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd as a former member of the Confederate army who travels across Texas reading the news to the locals for a dime a head in 1870. In his own words, reading the news is not the occupation of a rich man. Tensions in the area are high as Texas is no longer part of the defeated Confederacy but has yet to rejoin the Union. Townspeople feel they fought a rich man’s war and the Yankees are trying to tell the fiercely independent Texans what to do.
While traveling from one city to the next, Kidd happens upon a destroyed wagon and a lynched black soldier. He also discovers a wild young woman (Zengel) among the wreckage and is tasked by a Union Army patrol to take her to the next town. The young woman, Johanna, was taken from her family by Kiowa natives and in turn, taken from the Kiowa by the army.
Kidd does what he is supposed to do and brings her to the next town, but no one wants her. All of her birth family is dead and her adopted Kiowa family has been killed as well. Kidd discovers she has an aunt and uncle in Castroville and he has the choice to leave her to her own devices or take her to the last family she has left. The journey will not be quick, Johanna does not speak English and Kidd does not speak Kiowa.
Off into the wilds of central Texas the pair go. I have great respect for this film for the nuances it took on humanity in this time and age. While there is no ambiguity about the dangers that are ever-present, all people are not seen as inherently evil. I compare this to the film Hostiles where every character and situation in the world will get you killed or brutalized. Adversely, News of the World has its fair share of inhumanity and evil characters, people of reason and general goodness populate the masses as well.
Hanks imbues this humanity to a tee. While his performance is not revolutionary, the film does not ask him to do anything more than to be Tom Hanks. The film relies on Kidd’s likeability, dependability and steadfast resolve to anchor the story and Hanks delivers. I cannot imagine anyone other than Hanks turning this film into the success that it is.
Zengel has the more difficult part. When you meet Johanna, she feels like the missing link between cultures. As the film progresses and she begins communicating successfully, you feel the bridge being crossed. Communication is a key theme in the film; between Kidd’s readings and Johanna’s language barrier, the proper understanding leads these characters to grow. Zengel sparkles with porcelon blankness. She is never stated as simple or stupid, but how else are you perceived when you can’t express yourself? The young German actress matches Hanks’ performance without overshadowing him. They are always seen as equals in the eyes of each other and the eyes of the film.
Greengrass is known for his frenetic camera and action scenes, which serve him well when the action ramps up. But impressively, the director matches his two stars and doesn’t do too much; relying on a steadier camera that shows the bumpy roads of Texas hill country or when the camera melts into the crowd as a spectator in one of Captain Kidd’s readings.
Hanks and Zengel are not alone in the film. Just as 1917 popped in a famous face in a few scenes, News of the World does this with characters actors and actresses. The familiar faces of Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Camp lend some familiarity to the proceedings.
A film of this genre deserves equal praise for its crafts as well. Mark Bridges limits the costumes of these humble characters while keeping to a solidly western aesthetic. James Newton Howard’s score shows his range as it ramps up to a sweeping orchestra and down to a simple guitar. Special praise goes to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski who shoots every plain as beautiful and unforgiving, without coming across as too showy. All three should find themselves Oscar nominated.
News of the World is a lesson in restraint. The film is a simple story with characters who don’t do too much with a director and craftspeople who don’t overplay their hand. Many westerns go too big or too small. Good westerns straddle the line and News of the World is a very good western.