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Tom Hanks has gone through quite a lot in 2020, undergoing a significant range of highs and lows. After all, it’s not often that you go from earning your sixth Academy Award nomination to being the celebrity in the world to be diagnosed with a pandemic-level virus. Then there was the good news that his summer movie, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound, was going to be “rescued” following theater closures, but that was unfortunately proceeded with the revelation that the film really wasn’t very good. These are the kinds of emotional ups and downs that have the potential to cause whiplash, but the silver lining is that the year is ending on a high note for Hanks.
Crazy as things have been, the actor can reflect back on Paul Greengrass’ News Of The World with great positivity, as the film is among the best he’s made in the past decade – serving up big cinematic thrills, emotional storytelling, and impressive cinematography.
Based on the novel of the same name by author Paulette Jiles, the film is somehow Tom Hanks’ first venture into the Western genre, and stars him as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd – a former member of the Confederate States Army who, five years after the end of the Civil War, has taken on a new occupation. Saving people the trouble of being bored by newspapers, he travels from town to town delivering on-stage updates about the latest developments going on around the country. It’s a nomadic lifestyle, but his work is appreciated at every stop he makes.
It’s following a performance in Wichita Falls, Texas that everything for him changes. After coming across a raided wagon on the road he discovers that the lone survivor is a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel). While she doesn’t speak English, Captain Kidd learns from a record book that she was abducted by group of Kiowa Native Americans as a young child and raised by them for six years. She was being brought back to her closest living relatives, an aunt and uncle in a town called Red River, when her transport was attacked.
He attempts to shirk the responsibility of making sure she gets where she needs to go, attempting to leave her with friends in a nearby town, but when she continues to try and escape their custody he realizes what he must do. It’s a perilous multi-week journey, but Kidd agrees to travel with the child and make sure that she gets to Red River unharmed so that she may try and live some semblance of a normal life.
News Of The World plays very episodically, but each story is more thrilling than the last.
Past its setup, the narrative of News Of The World is primarily driven by the variety of conflicts that the protagonist and his ward encounter on their journey, and while the structure is obvious and simple, it’s hard to argue with the captivating results. Along the way the central duo crosses paths with disturbingly determined pedophiles, fascistic bandits, blinding dust storms, and more, and each and every time the film finds clever and thematic methods for resolution. Just when you think it has run itself into the corner, but pulls off a nimble surprise, and it’s thrilling each and every time.
Given the construction and the propensities of modern Hollywood, it’s actually somewhat surprising that the story wasn’t carved up and expanded as a miniseries, and it’s almost a shame that it wasn’t – which is another way of saying that I would have happily spent eight to ten hours with these characters instead of just two. That doesn’t make it any less satisfying, however.
You’re reminded why Tom Hanks is one of the best in the business.
It’s a funny thing to realize that News of the World marks the second time that Tom Hanks has played a captain under the direction of Paul Greengrass, the two having previously collaborated on 2013’s Captain Phillips, but there really isn’t much of a comparison between the two features otherwise; the 2020 release is vastly superior. While the previous movie was a middling drama with a solid performance from the star, this one is a superlative adventure with an exceptional turn. While Captain Kidd is a character who has seen combat, the greatest weapon he possesses is his charisma, wit, and gravitas, and nobody delivers that like Hanks. His geniality beautifully translates across eras, and it’s wonderful to recognize that he captivates audiences in the movie in the same way the actor captivates in reality.
Paul Greengrass delivers his best film since The Bourne Ultimatum.
Deserving equal-level praise is Paul Greengrass, whose style meshes impressively and surprisingly well with the material. Given his background as a journalist and documentarian, it makes sense that the primary focus of his work as a director has been telling stories set in modernity, but his work on News of the World demonstrates a strong grasp on the strengths of the genre, and he adapts well. There is still a lot of skilled handheld camera work, but the cinematography is much more controlled than, for example, what’s in the Bourne movies, which lets it have both a more traditional feel, and still possess Greengrass’ aesthetic stamp.
After the insane year that we’ve had in 2020, with Tom Hanks being an oddly prominent figure in the unique chaos,News of the World is one of the more optimistic ways to close it all out – with the star serving as a powerful paternal figure proselytizing the importance of real news. It’s many things all at once, as it is as fun as it is emotional, and as thrilling as it is charming, but it makes a fantastic blend, and an excellent cinematic experience.