Oscar winner Tom Hanks reunites with Oscar nominated writer/director Paul Greengrass for News of the World, a Western that’s sure to be in contention come Oscar time. 2020 can certainly use a dose of Tom Hanks playing a decent man channeling the best of humanity. And with Universal Pictures’ News of the World, Hanks delivers a painless shot in the arm we can all use right about now.
News of the World’s set five years after the end of the Civil War. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a traveling salesman of sorts but not one who pedals any tangible wares. Instead, he earns money by reading news to townsfolk yearning for a temporary escape from their everyday lives. They listen to what’s happening beyond the limits of their small towns and momentarily feel connected to a larger community.
After delivering the news in Wichita Falls, North Texas, Captain Kidd’s traveling to the next town when he encounters the remains of a carriage. A Black man has been strung up nearby (this is Texas after the Confederates lost the Civil War) and a young girl (Helena Zengel) has been left behind. It turns out she’s a 10-year-old orphan who was on her way to distant relatives.
Six years prior the Kiowa killed her parents and had been raising her as one of their own. Then just three weeks ago soldiers wiped out the Kiowa, thus making her an orphan twice over. Kidd learns all this from a journal left behind by the lynched man, and that her name is Johanna Leonberger.
Captain Kidd, being a morally upstanding individual, can’t just leave her out in the middle of nowhere. Although initially determined to turn her over to someone capable of delivering her to relatives, Kidd encounters multiple obstacles and eventually concludes her safe transportation to a new home rests squarely on his shoulders.
Their lengthy, treacherous journey to her aunt and uncle’s place in South Texas allows the two strangers the opportunity to bond. Johanna doesn’t speak English and Kidd doesn’t know any Kiowa. His attempt to converse in German, following the realization it’s possible that’s what her murdered parents spoke, also elicits no response. But with hundreds of miles to go and little else to do, they slowly learn how to communicate.
Tom Hanks’ Captain Kidd isn’t the only hero of this story. Johanna proves to be a formidable force when her life – or Captain Kidd’s – is in danger.
Tom Hanks and young Helena Zengel are one of the best on-screen duos of the year. There’s not a false note played by either and the bond they develop feels incredibly authentic. The transformation from complete strangers leery of their traveling companion to something akin to a father-daughter relationship is beautiful to watch unfold, and the chemistry between these two as lost souls searching for a place to feel at home is both heartwarming and uplifting.
Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies (Lion) adapted Paulette Jiles’ bestselling novel and their script is sharp and concise. There’s not a moment of filler or an unnecessary exchange of dialogue to be found in this gorgeous period Western that feels surprisingly timely in its depiction of a divided America. (There’s even a mention of fake news.)
News of the World features stunning cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (The Martian), a perfect score by James Newton Howard, and outstanding performances by Hanks and Zengel. It’s the kind of film 2020 audiences deserve – an inspirational, absorbing drama that allows us to feel hopeful, even if for only a few hours.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, some language, disturbing images, and violence
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes