News of the World is a leisurely lark that showcases sturdy studio filmmaking, with a pair of powerful performances from Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel.
With a filmography comprised of classics such as Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, and Big, it’s clear that Tom Hanks is easily one of the greatest actors of all-time – so, why does it still feel like he’s so unjustly underrated? Prior to his sixth Oscar nom this past year for his role as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the Academy had not recognized his work since 2000’s Cast Away, ignoring much-praised parts in Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks, and Sully. While the rapturous adoration for Mr. Hanks remains, it seems as if we’ve begun to take his talent for granted, and though the acting style of “America’s Dad” has indeed grown more subtle over the years, it is no less impactful than it was four decades ago, when his cherished career commenced. Now, in News of the World, Hanks sets out to remind us of his astounding abilities as an actor yet again, reteaming with his Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass (of The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93), to tell a tale set centuries in the past but one that feels painfully prescient – by prioritizing the power of communication and compassion in the woes of the wild American west – and anchoring it with his signature authenticity.
News of the World follows the work of the weathered Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Civil War veteran who crosses the U.S. countryside in the mid 1800s following the conclusion of this conflict and makes a living out of reading the news to any customers with curiosity and ten cents. One day, whilst traversing the trails, Kidd comes across a hanged body and a collapsed covered wagon before catching a young girl crouching in the brush. Perusing her paperwork, Kidd gleans that the girl’s name is Johanna (Helena Zengel, the breakout child star of Germany’s System Crasher), and learns that she had been living with the Kiowa people most of her life after they killed her parents years prior. Initially, Kidd entrusts her with local soldiers to be brought back to her only living family – her biological aunt and uncle – but, as luck would have it, the duty soon falls to him. As this mismatched pair makes their way across America to reunite Johanna with her relatives, the clamorous child – who speaks no English and rejects conventional societal customs – and the world-weary widower – who has never been in a parental position in any capacity – have to overcome their differences to survive a series of struggles on their journey, learning more about themselves and the turbulent time they live in.
In a recent interview, Hanks likened News of the World to a feature-length episode of Disney’s The Mandalorian (just “without lightsabers”) and, in many ways, this comparison proves to be quite fitting. Just as in that sci-fi serial, here we have a wayward wanderer who is satisfied in his seclusion but suddenly finds his whole world uprooted by the arrival of a yokelish youngster who causes the elder to break down barriers they’ve built for themselves overtime and explore unforeseen emotional depth. As such, it’s obvious that News of the World certainly isn’t the most original odyssey around (and parallels can also even be drawn to the pairing of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross in 2010’s True Grit), but what it lacks in subversive storytelling it makes up for in sincerity, particularly when revolving around the relationship between Kidd and Johanna. Though the film has a bit of a slow start (and the occasional plodding pacing here or there), much of this down-time proves to be critical to developing the connection between our two lead characters, linking these lost souls who have been left behind by a savage society and forgotten how to feel as a result.
For Hanks’ Kidd, his personal plights primarily revolve around the contempt he holds for the cruelty of man he witnessed during the war, which he sadly still sees in the hostility and hatred present in the towns he tours (particularly directed at the freed slaves and the American Indians). Though he takes great pride in his profession of reading about recent events in the world and bringing comfort to crowds across the nation, he himself struggles with finding much hope in humanity nowadays, and Hanks wears Kidd’s skepticism and suspicion with skillful sobriety, completely conveying his complex perspective on the populace’s prospects in this time of trouble and turmoil. At the same time, Kidd also carries the heavy heartache of leaving his wife behind to fight in the war, only for her to die while he was away, and Hanks’ restrained expression of this regret is truly remarkable, with his dour demeanor drawing us in time and time again.
Though Kidd and Johanna are initially at odds, this gallant young girl may just be the one to move him to open up once more, with Zengel miraculously matching Hanks’ towering talent in her U.S. film debut. Johanna is also full of wrath for the world – much moreso than Kidd – and she has good reason to be so belligerent; she’s an orphan two times over (having lost both her birth parents and her adoptive Kiowa tribe), she can’t properly communicate with anyone she comes into contact with, and she’s being forced to live with a family she’s never known. She’s been tossed around in life with little say as to how things will turn out, and Zengel embodies this exasperation with effortless expertise well beyond her years of acting experience and a magnetizing maturity that keeps her character feeling credible instead of cliché. It’s easy to see how another actress may have played the part with far less finesse, honing in on Johanna’s histrionics and leaving little room for contemplative characterization. Thankfully, Zengel never reduces the role to traditional “temper tantrums,” and her additional insight and introspection is astonishing, allowing her partnership with Kidd to prosper and evolve exponentially throughout their travels.
As these two bolster their bond, they are able to form a more united front to the wretchedness of the West, signifying the strength of conversation that can transcend cultural barriers. From riotous racists to sinister would-be sex traffickers to arrogant autocrats that force Kidd to read “fake news” to their constituents (which hits a little too close to home today), the perils are plentiful (and pertinent to present-day predicaments), but Kidd and Johanna’s robust relationship shields them from much of this strife. Greengrass captures many of their conflicts with a distinguished directorial vision that accentuates the action-packed setpieces with his trademark tension (and often serves as a shot of energy when the story starts feeling stagnant), but it’s the camaraderie between News of the World’s two main characters that keeps us invested in these clashes as opposed to any flashy filmmaking, as we have come to genuinely care for their well-being, beyond any doubt.
Aside from Greengrass’ honorable handling of the film as a whole, cinematographer Dairusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Martian) deserves ample acclaim for his wondrous work here, shooting the settings of News of the World with a sufficiently sweeping sense of scope and evoking the elegance of the natural environments that Kidd and Johanna encounter in each and every scene. It’s an awe-inspiring achievement – calling to mind the comparably consuming cinematography of the current American countryside in this year’s Nomadland – and if there were any justice in the world, it would earn Wolski his first Academy Award nomination at this year’s Oscars ceremony. When paired with James Newton Howard’s (The Dark Knight, The Hunger Games) stimulating score, it truly makes for quite the absorbing audiovisual experience.
News of the World’s story may not be subversive in the slightest, nor does it deviate from the traditional beats of the western genre, but thanks to powerful performances from Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel and some truly stirring setpieces, this is a trip worth taking in the end. It may at times be formulaic to a fault, but its sincerity is soothing nonetheless, and the compelling companionship between Hanks’ Kidd and Zengel’s Johanna – two characters from different cultures who have to try and trust others once again – is more than enough to earn the engagement of audiences throughout their torturous trek.
News of the World is now showing in select US cinemas, and will be released on Demand on January 15, 2021.
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