News of the World is a western adventure drama based on the novel by Paulette Jiles starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass. Everyone knows Hanks and many will recall the actor-director duo working together in Captain Phillips. The biographical thriller gave Hanks a chance to get real, delivering a compelling and richly emotional showcase in a pirate potboiler! Their collaboration was successful, which probably prompted them to work together again in News of the World. Greengrass comes from the Bourne series, having directed Matt Damon in the less effective Green Zone too.
He’s expanded his repertoire to include biographical adaptations, most recently the haunting 22 July, grappling with Norway’s most infamous terror attack. Suspense is a major factor in all of his films, gravitating towards action and quick pacing. This is true of News of the World, a western that follows a Civil War veteran newsman who’s tasked with delivering a young orphaned girl to her extended family against her will. The co-lead dynamic is similarly poised to the recent George Clooney film, Midnight Sky, putting the weight of responsibility on the veteran actor.
Tom Hanks has never made a proper western before. While he’s played a multitude of roles… in Cloud Atlas alone, his career has been characterised by a versatility often cited as “the every man”. His acting career has spanned over four decades, so the missing genre seems strange to purposeful. The real reason is that Hanks has never had the opportunity. Often playing in the arena of here and now, he hasn’t really toyed much with the old world or future either. We’re so used to seeing his mug just about everywhere making this exclusion as strange as Al Pacino acting in his first Martin Scorsese movie with The Irishman.
Perhaps the award-winning actor and all-round nice guy just wasn’t rugged enough to be convincing as a burly lead in a traditional western. To be fair, westerns are a rarity in Hollywood these days, not seen to travel well with sci-fi taking over much of the allure. He’s no John Wayne either, but now in his 60s it’s easier to see him playing in a more contemporary rendition of the old west. Toning down the Stetson, giving him a role as a travelling news reader and making him a retired Captain makes the fit work handsomely. Starring opposite him is young Helena Zengel as Johanna. The two have a workable on-screen chemistry and she’s convincing as a girl of German descent who was raised by the Kiowa people. Full of surprises, Zengel may not say much, but makes a wonderful sounding board for Hanks whose dangerous journey is actually a mission of self-realisation.
“Sind wir schon da?”
Horses, wagons, canyons, bandits, confederate soldiers and tribes, News of the World has many of the classic trappings of a western. While there’s a tip of the hat to classics like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, it adopts a fairly aloof standpoint. Much like the protector and his precious cargo, they’re trying to stay a step ahead of the mild perils that await them. Stumbling upon Johanna, one small rescue mission turns into a slightly bigger one as Captain Kidd becomes a father figure to the lost child. The drama is mostly driven by Hanks, who is used to carrying films and playing opposite “quiet” co-leads. Allowing Hanks to steer the emotional course, Greengrass plies himself with the adventure, whipping up a great deal of suspense and surprise.
The see-sawing drama is curious as the characters come to realise a level of co-dependency but News of the World is mostly built on a strong performance from Hanks, a compelling story from Jiles, vivid cinematography and well-curated thrills from Greengrass. Nominated for several production awards, News of the World may not be consistently gripping but is immersive with its production design. Made to look like everything simply exists, the film has weight backed by rich sound and aural environments that are so well-integrated you hardly notice them at all.
It’s a fine production, led by a stalwart lead and a budding new talent, offering a thoughtful and unconventional western adventure drama for contemporary audiences. Playing into some stereotypes, yet nuanced enough to exist beyond them, News of the World continues to suggest that Paul Greengrass is a solid bet and that drama thrillers are his strength. Dipping into some slightly more pensive dramatic territory, Greengrass never loses the reins and backed by Tom Hanks… even slightly wayward storytelling can’t derail this sturdy and handsomely mounted western.
The bottom line: Dependable