News of the World doesn’t sound like the title of a Western. But it is.
It’s the latest release starring Tom Hanks, coming out on Christmas Day.
In a holiday season emotionally and spiritually sabotaged by COVID-19, it is a cinematic gift to moviegoers everywhere.
Although production began before outbreak of the pandemic, it is a movie that seems to reflect everything that we have experienced for the better part of 2020.
There are many parallels. And a few pointers about how we might be able to slowly emerge from this painful experience.
Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former frontier town newspaper publisher who went off to fight the Civil War only to return to find that he had lost everything, including his beloved wife.
Five years following the war, he has taken up riding on horseback from town to town reading the news of the world to anyone who has a dime and wants to listen.
It’s a simple life, made complicated one day when he comes upon a young orphaned girl.
He discovers that she was once abducted by a native American tribe who had murdered her family. With no one around to look after her, he vows to return her to her only living relatives who live miles away, across some rough, untamed country.
It’s a long, dangerous journey, through an inhospitable world made even more terrifying by the lawless people they will inevitably encounter, former Union soldiers, roaming criminals and scavengers and bands of brutal native tribes.
Journeys are a universal theme in literature and cinema. They take many forms.
One recurring storyline is about the unlikely friendships and relationships that are sometimes formed when characters with no apparent connection, and nothing in common, face great adversity together.
Here, it’s the camaraderie that develops between an older, father figure and a vulnerable young, orphaned girl.
Interestingly, it’s virtually the same dynamic that’s at the center of George Clooney’s new futuristic, sci-fi film The Midnight Sky, featuring an aging, ailing scientist and an abandoned, helpless young girl.
What News of the World has going for it are two outstanding performances, from Tom Hanks and newcomer, Helena Zengel, an exceptionally talented, 11-year-old German actress.
In movies like this, casting is everything, and that is certainly the case here. It works, brilliantly.
Direction is also a key element.
In this case, we’re talking about acclaimed British director Paul Greengrass whose previous movies include the Jason Bourne trilogy as well as United 93 (2006) and Captain Phillips (2013) which also starred Tom Hanks. Greengrass is the perfect choice for an action/adventure/drama like this.
News of the World serves up a lot of heart-pounding, realistic action, which is this director’s trademark.
There are shootouts and chases and more tense moments than you can count. Greengrass makes it all gritty, guttural and believable.
And he creates a very convincing wild west environment.
Unlike what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in stock westerns (particularly TV Westerns) over the years, this landscape is natural in appearance and sweeping in scope.
The sparce towns are ramshackle buildings are weathered and worn. Everything seems lived in and real, down to the smallest detail, including the plates of food served at the local hotel.
Underscoring the naturalistic art direction, the very light in News of the World seems authentic and real, from the sun scorched plains to the crackling camp fires and lantern-illuminated, dark room interiors.
It all adds up to a sense of presence and tangibility.
It feels right. It feels real. And it adds a sense of convincing realism to the film.
There can be no discussion of movie westerns without mentioning the master, John Ford who defined the genre. His many films have inspired many more films about the Old West, borrowing on his powerful themes.
The theme of a man relentlessly tracking down a young woman who had been abducted and raised by Indians had already been done in The Searchers (1956) with John Wayne and Natalie Wood.
Essentially, it’s the same storyline here, and Greengrass seems to acknowledge the connection in one, quick shot of his principal characters framed within the open door of a dark prairie house.
It’s an homage to the famous shot near the end of The Searchers.
Though it’s assumed that News of the World is Tom Hank’s first role as a cowboy character, it really isn’t, technically. Recall that he was Woody in Toy Story (1996).
That was a cartoon and he only supplied Woody’s voice, but it underscore’s Hanks’s range as a performer, delivering memorable performances that reached both ends of the spectrum, from comedy to drama.
And that’s mighty impressive, as Woody might say.
I’ve always maintained that Hanks, like Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, is the “Everyman” of our generation. His resume is an almost unbroken string of hits.
News of the World is a Tom Hanks movie. And that, in itself, is a surefire guarantee that it is worth seeing.
But in addition to that, it is a film for the times, more than you might imagine.
It’s about a chaotic, world of confusion and dissent.
It’s about a divided country in search of unity and restoration. It’s about the search for hope in the midst of dark times.
And in that sense, News of the World is so very relevant to our world, right now, this holiday season.
It’s about two characters trying to find a home. And, in a larger sense, it’s about all of us metaphorically trying to find our way back to better times.
News of the World opens in theaters Christmas Day.
Photos courtesy Universal Pictures.