A beautiful honey-tinged road movie, Tom Hanks shines in ‘News of the World” – the first true Western of his career
Westerns seem to be a rare thing these days, or at least for the last couple of decades, with studios intent on shoehorning in some new and interesting angle be they comedy, horror, or hell even aliens. As such it’s something of a thrill to see some of the most bankable players in Hollywood embrace a true Western and one loaded with familiar tropes at that.
Tom Hanks stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former soldier who now makes a living as a newsreader, he travels throughout Texas reading the news to isolated communities for a dime per listener. Whilst on his travels he encounters Johanna (Helena Zengel) a young girl lost on the road. He learns that Johanna has been a prisoner of the local Native American tribe for the last 6 years, having recently been freed she needs to be returned to her last surviving family members some 400 miles away.
Kidd takes on the mission of escorting her across the prairies himself, though things are complicated by the fact that Johanna had become completely assimilated into the tribe during her time with them – she speaks no English and did not want to be ”rescued.” Directed by Paul Greengrass, (the Bourne series, Captain Phillips) it’s a dark horse in this years awards season race.
News of the World hardly treads new ground – the lone hero rescuing a girl from the ‘natives’ is the plot of countless classic Westerns – but it succeeds in bringing us that story in a more nuanced way and focuses more on the relationship between its two characters. Learning to overcome fear and communicate is the name of the game. Whilst set against the backdrop of the post-Civil War period in the American South and all the simmering resentment that entailed, it manages to distill its story into a simple character study rather than a historical epic.
A two-handed road movie, we follow Kidd and Johanna as they travel through the wilderness encountering dangerous conditions, helpful accomplices and blackhearted villains. Whilst it all may be a bit familiar, there’s something genuinely comforting about knowing where this film is going and the calm meander it takes to get there.
The predictability of the plot would not be so agreeable were it not for the brilliant efforts of its two main stars. Tom Hanks continues his reign as the most charming leading man in Hollywood. Kidd’s clever manipulation and earnest love of a good story shines through as he captivates both his on screen audience and those at home. He drives home a not-so-subtle message about the power of a free press and the escapism afforded to us by stories.
Helena Zengler is an astonishing find. The 12-year-old German actress speaks nearly all of her lines in Kiowa (an endangered Native American language) and does an excellent job of portraying the hostility and fear of a child who has been ripped from her family not once but twice. It was announced today that she has been shortlisted for a Golden Globe and with rumblings of a possible Oscar nomination on the cards she is clearly one to watch.
The cinematography in News of the World is surely a highlight of this feature. Filmed in the New Mexico desert and with a number of key scenes being during ‘golden hour’ it makes great use of natural light to give much of the film a beautiful honey-tinged colour palette. Wide tracking shots take in seemingly endless vistas, mountain ranges and beautiful sunsets whilst Greengrass uses the jarring handheld camera work he normally reserves for fight sequences to bring an immersive sense of closeness to the road – sliding between animals, brushing against trees and bumping up and down with the carriage. It’s a lovely thing to watch.
Skillful direction, beautiful scenery, simple heroes and villains and a very charming paternal relationship make News of the World an absorbing package. Whilst it had a theatrical release in the US last year it’s been picked up by Netflix for international distribution, meaning lucky UK and international viewers can stream it from 10th February 2021.