Tom Hanks shines in ‘News of the World,” but just because it’s a western when so few are made, does not mean it’s a classic

‘News of the World’

Where you can see it: Premiere Cinemas and Cinemark’s Tinseltown.
Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing material and some language.
Director: Paul Greengrass.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Tom Astor, John Travis Johnson, Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham.
Screenplay: Co-written by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies; based on novel by Paulette Jiles.
Original music: James Newton Howard.
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski.
Editing: William Goldberg.
Production design: David Crank.
Costumes: Mark Bridges.

Bill’s rating: 4 of 5 stars.

The plight of the western film takes an  interesting  turn.

Few westerns being made and the genre has been declared a dying or dead art form so many times.

So too often any revival is quickly declared a masterpiece.

Note the manner in which director Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World” was initially embraced.

In terms of western masterpieces, opinions vary. More than once, I have run social media polls asking readers to name the best westerns. With hundreds to choose from, I was rewarded with literally dozens of titles.

While I could certainly cite more terrific westerns, the first five (OK, six) titles, and their release dates, which  came to my mind while writing this were:

  • July 30, 1952, director Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” starring Gary Cooper.
  • March 13, 1956, John Ford’s “The Searchers,” starring John Wayne.
  • June 18, 1969, Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and Robert Ryan.
  • July 4, 1969, Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” with Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jason Robards and Gabriele Ferzetti. There has been growing debate declaring Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (Dec. 29, 1967) as the director’s most appreciated/best western. The latter film co-stars Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef.
  • August 7, 1992, Clint Eastwood’s revisionist western “Unforgiven,” starring Eastwood, with support from Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris.

Note the almost 30-year gap between “Unforgiven” and “News of the World.” With the latter also finding beloved actor Tom Hanks, certainly a  people’s favorite, making his first venture into the western genre, it’s easy to understand the buzz around its release.

While it does not equal the five-star status of westerns I previously listed, Greengrass’ “News of the World” remains entertaining and very much worth seeing on the big screen. It was a good choice to help lure movie fans back to theaters.

While it does not lack for confrontations, a bit more action might have helped; instead, the film’s best moments gradually work their way up from below the surface.

Those moments include guilt carried internally by Hanks, who questions leaving his now deceased wife far too long to fight in the War Between the States – and the guilt of a nation, which learned nothing from the blood shed during the Civil War and still maintains its racism.

The film’s most important character is played by young Helena Zengel as a now almost feral child stolen from her home twice. Audiences learn that she has two names, Johanna and Cicada; she prefers the latter.

Now 10 years old, Johanna was born of German parents forging a new life in the American wilderness. At age 4, she was kidnapped/adopted by the same Kiowa tribe that massacred her family that day for stealing their land.

For six years, she has been raised as Kiowa, until an attack by federal forces leads to her being slowly transported back to the last known relatives of her German parents.

She does not make it far.

A black man assigned to transport her is lynched for the color of his skin. His white killers are in pursuit of the child. Never mind her blonde hair; her language, attire and attitude now define her as Native American, and that is dangerous  in a post-war Texas where racism  includes more than  black skin.

Hanks portrays former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, traveling from one small Texas town to the next. He rescues the 10-year-old child, first intent on making sure military authorities will follow through on finding her relatives.

Met with a lack of caring and cooperation from authorities, Captain Kidd decides to escort her hundreds of miles to her relatives in Castroville, Texas.

Dangers are many, including a group of bad men presumably dealing in human trafficking, offering hundreds in cash for the child. Bullets eventually will be exchanged instead.

Hanks is, of course, precisely the right man to star. He, too, is lost emotionally, yet maintains a decency of soul. As he puts it, “This little girl is lost. She needs to be home.”

Based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles, the title “News of the World” is a reference to the former Confederate captain’s new occupation.

Purchasing newspapers from each community visited, he continues on to more remote towns. Greengrass emphasizes the importance of knowledge.

In each town visited, for a fee of one dime dropped into a tin can, those  present can listen to the refined and educated Captain Kidd reading news from around the world – and yes, also news about other Texas towns, where relatives or friends may reside. All found in newspapers and headlines he has collected.

In the process, this former printer-turned-soldier learns how to act a bit, succeeding in making his news recitation more entertaining in lighter moments.

He touches on politics, inventions and humorous happenings, leaving listeners feeling appreciative and more informed.

While set in Texas after the Civil War, the film finds Kidd opening with news of a meningitis outbreak; he later reads frightening news about a cholera outbreak. One can only assume that Greengrass means both as reminders of the world today.

While the film opens in Wichita Falls, with Captain Kidd changing to  a southwestern route after visiting Dallas, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski chooses to combine his Texas terrains. There are the rock-filled, hilly terrains prevalent when past westerns needed an ambush.

What’s more, the director cannot forego the temptation of creating a massive West Texas dust storm as another danger faced by protagonists.

“Captain” and “Johanna” do forge a bond, one born of respect, learning and feeling more than shared language or communication. After all, Johanna definitely understands when this older white man returns to rescue, not steal, her from uncaring relatives.

Not that her longings, or feelings of her heart, can soon change.

Emphasized by a beautiful score by James Newton Howard, one  heart-wrenching scene finds Zengel spying a family of Indians traveling on the other side of a river, barely visible in the night’s rain. Weeping, she begs in Kiowa for them to take her with them.

Hanks delivers one of his better performances, as well. He introduces a defeated, older man with sad memories, yet finds a nobility and purpose in life once more.

Greengrass, too, succeeds on a new playing field after introducing the action of “Jason Bourne,” working with Hanks on “Captain Phillips” and the doomed heroism of those aboard “United 93” on 9-11.

His first western is an entertaining change of pace.

Gage’s rating: Three and one-half out of five stars.

This new year, so far, feels no different from 2020 at least in the quality of movies on the big screen.

It’s the same so far in January.

I thought if any 2021 movie was going to be great, it would be “News of the World.” The trailer held so much promise. But the film never lives up to its potential.

Tom Hanks stars as professional news reader Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, traveling from one small town to the next. I don’t remember a movie in which Hanks has given a bad performance; this is no different, although his work is not Oscar-worthy.

He transforms Captain Kidd into a lovable, emotional character by the end of the movie. His performance may not be great, but at least he overshadows everyone else on screen.

Co-starring is young Helena Zengel as Johanna, a white girl raised by the same Kiowa tribe who killed her family. The two actors work well together. They are the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing movie.

As for the story, my questions arise from how director Paul Greengrass handles Johanna’s character arc and her relationship arc with Captain Kidd. The writers rush through Johanna’s growth because, by the time the movie is almost over, Captain Kidd already is telling people that “she loves story.”

I’m wondering, when did that happen?

We only see her twice with Captain Kidd during his reading of the world’s news, and neither scene spotlights any growth in terms of “loving stories.” Which leads me to my biggest gripe: the relationship between Captain Kidd and Johanna.

I’ve seen this type of relationship before; I’ve witnessed it perfected to a point where I was crying by the end of my experience.

I refer to the characters Joel and Ellie in the video game “The Last of Us.” Down to its core, this is almost the same story: Man takes girl to another part of the country, where she is supposed to be – and they build a relationship throughout their journey.

The difference is there’s much more conflict in “The Last of Us,” not only between the protagonist and the world, but between Joel and Ellie.

In “News of the World,” no conflict develops between Captain Kidd and Johanna. If the characters faced a problem and it was resolved by one or the other, the movie could have been so much better.

I understand this is hardly a fair comparison. With a video game, there is gameplay. One stays with characters longer in a game. Nevertheless, the movie’s story pales in comparison.

Aside from that, the movie can be entertaining. The cinematography often is beautiful, and supporting characters, like the action sequences, are serviceable.

Still, this is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but at least Hanks and Zengel are interesting characters. Pacing is fine, and Greengrass does many of the small things right.

If only the writers and Greengrass had spent more time solving the relationship issue shared by Captain Kidd and Johanna, it would have been much better.

As it stands, “News of the World” approaches audiences like most other films studios rathole away to arrive on screens in January, even in non-pandemic years. Which is not a compliment.