Hanks and Greengrass have made another enjoyable picture, one that favours a simple emotional story over six-shooters and cowboys.
It might come as a surprise that Tom Hanks (America’s proclaimed ‘Dad’ and the voice of Sheriff Woody) has never made a Western before. Considering fellow ‘everyman’ actors like James Stewart and Gary Cooper carved a portion of their careers out of this, it seemed inevitable that Hanks would one day enter the Old West. That day is now with News of the World and thankfully, it is good news.
Reuniting with director Paul Greengrass nearly eight years after their collaboration on tense real-life thriller Captain Phillips and based on a novel by Paulette Jiles, Hanks plays American Civil War veteran turned newsreader Jefferson Kyle Kidd. He travels town to town with his papers and spins the tales of the country into crowd-pleasing narratives, bringing the townsfolk together to hear the same story in a format that serves as a poignant reminder of what cinemas did and hopefully will do again. The plot kicks into gear when Kidd comes across Johanna (Helena Zengel), a lone German-born girl who was raised by a Kiowa tribe for six years. Due to the fact she is a lost child, Kidd decides to escort Johanna to her remaining family members several hundred miles away whilst encountering the various perils along the American frontier.
It’s hardly a new story for the genre. Heavily echoing The Searchers, with Greengrass paying homage to John Ford’s legendary closing shot but adding his own twist to it, News of the World also seems like a re-tread of 2017’s neo-western superhero hybrid Logan, with parallels likely to be drawn from Hugh Jackman’s frail ex-warrior escorting Dafne Keen’s Laura across a dangerous frontier while also finding peace within himself. But despite its obvious influences, the paternal relationship that emerges between Kidd and Johanna is warming and the safe casting choice of Hanks is perfect. Perhaps Sam Elliot would have worked well in the lead, but Hanks’ natural warmth is designed for these uplifting moralistic tales that sit firmly within his comfort zone.
The Western underwent a transition after the release of 1990’s Dances With Wolves. The genre became almost exclusively revisionist, offering a more mature and authentic glimpse into frontier life. The Old West was no longer an era of heroes and bandits but of complex Native Americans, entrenched racial divisions and a deconstruction of many heroes’ mythic status. Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is the most recent example to demonstrate these issues, and it is mildly refreshing that News of the World largely avoids them to focus on the story. Set in the Reconstruction Era, the film silently observes the lynching of an African American, the spreading of ‘fake-news’ by a crooked town mayor and the devastating slaughter of buffalo. These moments serve as bitter reminders of the problems that the country still endured after the Civil War, but it does at times feel like a clumsy attempt at making an allegorical statement about America today and the film works when concentrating on its central story and not the surrounding metaphors. Essentially, it operates better as a traditional Western than a revisionist one.
In the case of Paul Greengrass, who’s best known for directing three of the five films in the Bourne franchise that became defined by its handheld cinematography, snappy editing, and immensely streamlined screenplays, News of the World is remarkably different from his previous work. Indeed Greengrass would have been considered my last choice to direct a Western, but this is by far his most visually arresting picture to date. Shots are held for long periods, the lighting is immaculate and the frontier plains are eye-popping. The handheld cinematography provides a slight displacement for the viewer while numerous lens flares also feel anachronistic for a Western aiming towards the refined filmmaking of its fellow counterparts. The film has two light settings: intense sunlight and blueish twilight, both impressively caught by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. As for the pacing, Greengrass takes his time unfolding his story. A three-on-one shootout, one of a few action beats, lasts a respectable period. Realism is attempted by showing the inaccuracy of old frontier weaponry during this engagement and it also features an inventive use of shotgun ammunition.
That being said, News of the World is a solid iteration for Greengrass and Hanks into the Western genre due to an emotionally attuned story, staple central performances, and largely crisp visuals. It can feel a little cautious at times and could easily have delved into darker places, but a worthy watch still awaits for Tom Hanks fans and Western alike.
News of the World, directed by Paul Greengrass, is available to stream now via Netflix, certificate 12A.