Tom Hanks Goes Western
There’s very little that Tom Hanks hasn’t done. From enduring the discomfort of support brassieres in TV’s Bosom Buddies, to foiling pirates on the high seas in Captain Phillips, America’s favorite actor has just about done it all. The guy even battled his way through Covid-19 with the grace of a Saint! It’s certainly hard to believe, but until now, he had never starred in a Western.
Well, saddle up boys and girls, because Tom Hanks takes the reins in News of the World, a grand Western set in the the1870’s American west. Though the story takes place more than 150 years ago, it bears a message and themes that continue to resonate, particularly in today’s contentious climate.
Adapted from Paulette Jiles’ bestselling novel, News of the World is set five years after the American Civil War tore the country apart. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) travels from town to town reading newspapers and spinning tales of presidents, queens, and natural disasters to entertain a war-weary populace hungry for information and entertainment. It costs only a dime to listen, but the brief respite is worth a fortune.
On one particular stop somewhere in Texas, Kidd crosses the path of an abandoned 10-year-old girl called Johanna (Helena Zengel, System Crasher) by her birth family, but later renamed Cicada by the Kiowa tribe of Native Americans who took her and raised her as one of her own. Cautious and hostile to outsiders, Johanna eventually warms up to Kidd as the two work out a rudimentary means of communicating. Realizing that the seat of a buckboard is no place for a child to grow up, Kidd feels he has no option but to return Johanna to her nearest living relatives down near San Antonio.
As time and tumbleweeds slowly pass by, it is eventually revealed that, despite their differences, the two have suffered great personal losses. And their journey together just may be the road to healing each of them needs.
The remainder of the movie plays out as a dusty road trip tinged with danger that lurks behind every rock and beyond around every bend in the trail. As we’ve learned from Westerns, there are a million ways to die in the West, and as depicted by director Paul Greengrass (United 93), those dangers are very real, from shady characters with sinister intent, to buffalo barons, to mother nature’s deadly wrath. But there’s always Hanks to guide us through the peril with his trademarked brand of restrained dignity. Though we’re not accustomed to seeing him in a well-worn Stetson and cowboy boots, I couldn’t imagine any actor better suited for the role of a scarred Civil War veteran searching for forgiveness.
With clever allusions to the importance of broadening one’s perspective, the power of truth, and the danger of lies, this road trip is much deeper than most. It’s a story of home and hearth and the importance of finding a place to belong. Greengrass and co-writer Luke Davies inject the proceedings with valiant themes that strike a resonant chord with those hoping to heal from our country’s current state of affairs.
Greengrass, known for his frantic pacing and herky-jerky camera movement, slows things way down with News of the World, choosing to emphasize the stillness of the American west with wide panoramic shots of the New Mexico countryside (standing in for Texas), while James Newton’s beautiful score highlights the film’s intimate narrative. Throw in brilliant performances from Hanks and Zengel, and you have the perfect recipe for one of the year’s best films.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated “PG-13” for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.