From Greek mythology to the western novels of Larry McMurtry, storytellers have chronicled the adventures of men making epic journeys, enduring great hardships and struggling to return to home and family.
From Homer’s classical tales of Odysseus to the trials and tribulations of Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, characters in literature have braved the open seas and barren plains to rescue women and children or deliver a herd of cattle.
The same is true in film. From John Wayne’s debut in Stagecoach to Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, the heroes of cinema have defended helpless villages, escorted wagon trains of civilians through the wilderness and fought for the freedom of the oppressed. It is a time-honored narrative on both the page and the screen.
In News of the World, the latest film from director Paul Greengrass , a retired captain from the Confederate Army (Tom Hanks) is pressed into service to return a young German girl to her family after living in Native American captivity for years.
Captain Kidd travels from frontier town to frontier town. He dresses up in his finest clothes, collects the newspapers of the day and presents the news from across the country. Some audience members attend for the entertainment. Others clearly attend because they are illiterate, and it’s their only way to learn about the world around them.
As the Captain travels to his next presentation, he comes across a wagon that’s been ambushed. The driver has been murdered, and there’s a young blonde girl hiding in the wreckage. When the authorities refuse to allocate the resources to deliver the girl to her family, Captain Kidd takes on the assignment, traveling hundreds of miles through country occupied by bandits and hostile Native Americans.
Tom Hanks gives a quiet, restrained performance as Captain Kidd. He says as much with his eyes and his body language as he does with words. Hanks was a perennial Oscar contender in the mid-1990’s, winning Best Actor for Philadelphia in 1994 and Forrest Gump in 1995. In the subsequent 25 years, he’s been nominated a handful of times, but his brilliant body of work feels underappreciated. He suffers from making the process of acting look too easy.
Tom Hanks is the Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck of our times. He’s become so reliable at carrying a film that his performances in Captain Phillips, Sully, Bridge of Spies and countless other films have been largely unacknowledged by critics and film fans.
Given Hanks’ absence in the awards talk for 2020, his excellent work in News of the World may go unnoticed as well. It doesn’t help that the film was released solely in theaters on Christmas Day in the midst of an international pandemic.
Director Paul Greengrass is best known for his action films: the Jason Bourne films starring Matt Damon, the 9/11 drama United 93 and Captain Phillips. Greengrass usually employs a shaky, handheld camera look with quick editing cuts to ramp up the tension.
In News of the World, Greengrass has adopted a different style altogether. It’s more suited to the story being told, offering wide establishing shots of the western countryside (although the film was made in Australia) and frequent use of classic Steadicam cinematography. It’s a western that actually looks like an old-fashioned western.
Over the past few decades, American westerns have aspired to be more than adventure tales. They’ve tried to dig into deeper thematic veins than the John Wayne yarns of yesteryear, earning them the label “revisionist westerns.”
Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning 1992 release Unforgiven began this trend. It was a violent movie that explored the evils of violence rather than revel in the “action” created by the violence.
News of the World attempts to explore the nature of family and how people bond, but the film rarely digs below the surface of its plotline. That’s not a bad thing, just a missed opportunity. As it is, News of the World is an enjoyable western starring one of our finest actors. If you’re a fan of the genre, you won’t want to miss this one.
News of the World is currently playing in theaters.