Tom Hanks is a national treasure who can do no wrong. To many, he never gives a bad performance, and moviegoers often seek out his films. Considering I’m a homegrown American, I too love Tom Hanks, but I grew up in the 1990s, so my appreciation lies mostly in that decade.
I remember him for “Toy Story,” “Forrest Gump” and “Saving Private Ryan.” I was floored by “Saving Private Ryan” and Hanks’ gut-wrenching performance, and I’ll never forget watching it with friends and sitting silently as the credits rolled. That remains one of my favorite movie memories.
As thankful as I am for Hanks, I believe that his best performances are in the past. He no longer disappears into roles like Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis do. In “Sully,” “The Post” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” he appears to play a moderately adjusted version of himself. And I know this may sound controversial but anytime I watch a new Hanks film, I know I’m watching Tom Hanks. Just one more time, I want to see Hanks truly transform for a role.
Thankfully, “News of the World” is the closest he’s come since “Cast Away,” “The Ladykillers” or “Captain Phillips” to a transformative performance. “Captain Phillips” is an apt comparison because, like “News of the World,” it’s directed by Paul Greengrass and features a grizzled version of Hanks. In Greengrass’s film, Hanks is a gruff and weathered Civil War veteran. His beard is ungroomed, his face is sweaty, and his eyes are sunken. This is a man who has been to hell and back, yet he maintains a positive demeanor while understanding the dark realities outside his wagon.
Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a traveler who reads nonfiction news stories to townsfolk who are desperate for an escape. During these troubled times, this desire for escape is relevant. While traveling, Kidd discovers Johanna, a young girl taken in by the Kiowa people who struggles to conform to societal norms. Relative newcomer Helena Zengel plays Johanna, and she is excellent. The young actress expertly captures the complex history and cultural clash inside of this young girl with her performance.
Initially, Kidd plans to rid himself of the child as quickly as possible, but he must return her to her family when no one takes her.
Beyond Hanks’ and Zengel’s performances, I thought the film was intriguing because of the plot, direction, and cinematography. I’ve never seen a movie about a traveling newsman, and while the endangered young girl in the west concept has been done before, Greengrass’s approach is fresh.
He likely took inspiration from “The Searchers” and “True Grit,” but Greengrass spins his western into a decidedly slow burn that is more focused on character development than cowboy adventures. If you’re not a fan of slow-burn films, you might be bored by “News of the World,” but I enjoy slower movies because they break up the barrage of blockbuster bombast. I also love seeing westerns that capture the grand vistas of Texas.
The cinematographer of the film, Dariusz Wolski, never wastes a shot, and each one is a work of art. With shots as beautiful as an Alfred Bierstadt painting, “News of the World” makes a strong case as escape entertainment.
That said, I was never struck emotionally by Johanna and Captain Kidd’s journey. I thought that their character development was well thought out, but by the time the film reached its climax, I was not emotionally fraught. Regardless, I thought “News of the World” was one of Hanks’ best films in recent years, and I hope he partners with Greengrass again because I believe that the director challenges the actor. Hanks will always be a beloved actor, but I hope he keeps finding new and exciting roles to keep his career fresh.