A Showcase for Hanks in a Well-Made Western

by Hassan Ilahi

Not many movie-stars in Hollywood have established a screen persona as distinct as Tom Hanks. With his undeniable charisma, leading-man looks and larger-than-life presence, Tom Hanks has always embodied the American hero. While Hanks’ screen image has earned him a huge fan following, it has also attracted criticism. Hanks has almost always played heroes with honorable intentions in his movies. This typecasting has caused repetition in the actor’s work, leaving little room for surprises. At this point in his career Hanks has become easy to take for granted. Nonetheless, these criticisms haven’t prevented the actor from creating timeless characters throughout his career.

Now, Hanks is back on the big-screen and his enduring appeal as an actor is clearly evident in his latest film News of the World. An intimate, heartwarming and rousing Western drama, it allows the actor to capitalize on his real-life persona. With his eleventh feature, writer/director Paul Greengrass has crafted a sweeping adventure reminiscent of John Ford. Packed with gorgeous cinematography, exquisite production design and fantastic performances, it is an admirable Western. Although News of the World is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. Its storytelling is formulaic, and suffers from a lack of compelling character development. Nonetheless, it offers old-fashioned entertainment that will satisfy fans of Westerns.

Set in 1870’s Texas, News of the World focuses on a Civil War veteran that travels through the Western countryside in search for a home. Tom Hanks stars in the leading role as Captain Jefferson Kidd, a righteous confederate that delivers news to townspeople. However, Kidd’s career halts when he rescues a German girl (Helena Zengel) held in captivity by Native Americans. Kidd embarks on a journey to safely transport the girl home. As Kidd crosses treacherous terrain, he forms a close connection with his newfound companion.

Writer/director Paul Greengrass is a newcomer to the Western movie genre. Ever since he earned worldwide recognition with Bloody Sunday in 2002, Greengrass has proven to be a phenomenal British filmmaker. His movies are commonly characterized by a documentarian style, using hand-held shooting techniques to recreate real-life incidents. With News of the World, however, Greengrass has crafted his first Western. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to adapt a best-selling fiction novel to the big-screen, but he pulls it off successfully. Through spellbinding cinematography, Greengrass draws viewers into the world of an adventurous Civil War soldier that embarks on an expedition through the American frontier. Greengrass’ decision to shoot the movie using hand-held camera is risky. In his previous films, this technique has often made for a nauseating rather than immersive viewing experience. However, it works immensely in this movie. Working alongside cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Greengrass successfully employs hand-held cameras to immerse viewers into the lush landscapes of the Western frontier. It lends a sense of intimacy and authenticity to the movie that evokes 1960’s Westerns. Greengrass excels at immersing viewers into a war veteran’s voyage, and his latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If stories of courageous war veterans do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see News of the World. From a technical standpoint, the film is undeniably well-made and worth watching for its exquisite production value. The production sets, sounds and musical score are all meticulously chosen, combining to create an unforgettable cinematic experience. Greengrass has always been an expert at using diegetic sounds in his films, and News of the World is no exception. Assisted by sound-designer Mike Fentum, Greengrass efficiently utilizes diegetic sounds to build suspense in Captain Kidd’s dangerous journey. Whether it is deafening gunshot explosions or stormy sandstorms, the diegetic sounds immerse viewers into the threatening terrain of the Old West. For example, diegetic sounds are particularly well-used to create tension in the shoot-out scene between the heroes and outlaws. Diegetic sounds are tricky tools to use in Westerns, but they work deftly in this film. Moreover, the musical score is also worth lauding. James Newton Howard’s score is sublime. It gives the film a warm and nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of John Ford’s The Searchers. Through awe-inspiring production values, Greengrass keeps viewers engrossed in the forbidding American wilderness.

It is hard to not admire the astonishing performances from the cast. The two leads are spectacular, creating a touching paternal bond.

Tom Hanks delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Captain Jefferson Kidd. Hanks has spent most of his career playing ordinary heroes in dangerous scenarios. With News of the World, he returns to familiar terrain in a role that seems to be tailor-made for him. It is not easy to portray a righteous confederate that relays news in 1870’s Texas. However, Hanks pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the compassion, determination and fatherly affection of a war veteran that seeks to transport a girl to her homeland. At the age of 64, one could argue that Hanks has become too old to play action heroes. Nevertheless, it’s a marvelous performance from one of the greatest movie-stars working today.

Helena Zengel is remarkable in the role of a rebellious teenage girl that yearns to return to her homeland. In her first ever breakthrough role, Zengel proves to be a talented child star with an aptitude for holding her own against legendary icons. As Johanna, she exhibits a knack for communicating intense emotions through her body language rather than dialogue. Whether she is refusing to obey the Captain’s orders or fondly remembering her home, Zengel effectively uses her body language to communicate various feelings. Its a star-making performance that proves the ingénue has a bright future in Hollywood.

Despite its extraordinary performances, however, News of the World doesn’t always deliver the attention-grabbing news headlines hinted by its title. If there’s one area where the movie stumbles, it is in the storytelling department. Greengrass’ screenplay is slightly conventional, and arguably the weakest aspect of the film. Greengrass’ decision to focus merely on the spectacle of Western adventure is bold and innovative, but it hinders the story. Due to this faulty technique, there are times when the movie feels more like a video-game rather than a compelling adaptation. Moreover, it leaves no room for character development. For instance, we’re barely given convincing reasons to care about Captain Kidd beyond the fact that he is portrayed by Tom Hanks. For any Western to truly work well, it has to strike a balance between spectacle and storytelling. Westerns thrive based on this balanced approach, and in this respect News of the World isn’t quite on par with classics in the genre.

In the end, News of the World is a satisfactory Western that delivers headlines which aren’t always legible. An entertaining but faulty adaptation, it is elevated by Tom Hanks’ screen persona. Like reading a positive news headline, it’s a cheerful reminder that the actor hasn’t lost his ability to charm audiences in an industry that has always taken his talents for granted.

Hassan’s Grade:  B+