Tom Hanks Spreading The Good Word
Every Tom Hanks movie is a Tom Hanks movie, right? Wrong. This film is one person's and it's undoubtedly, unequivocally, Helena Zengel's. This is tremendously impressive as it's her first big time role, and she had to go toe-to-toe with an Oscar-winner. And she did it with ease. It was as if she had been at it for years. Believe the hype around her performance, because it's real. News of the World is a decent Western that I feel is just one leg up on the average, run-of-the-mill of its genre. If you're a fan of the genre, a fan of Hanks, and a fan of director Paul Greengrass, then this will certainly be for you. Before we get in too deep early on here, let's get in too deep.
The setup for the film is almost certain to be familiar territory for fans of the Western genre. It's nothing new in terms of the "cowboy finds a stray orphan in hopes of finding a home" premise, but it does enough to be different and to entertain. Tom Hanks plays a "news reader" who jumps from town to town reading the news to people who either can't read or don't have the time to read the news daily (I had no idea people with this sort of occupation even existed, but it makes total sense). His world is upended when he finds Helena Zenger's seemingly unnamed character in the fallout of what appears to be an ambush of a wagon. From there, we have our premise. Hanks meets Zenger, and the two embark on a journey together that would forever change their lives. To reiterate, Zenger's performance as the orphan without a home and without a cause is magnificent and deserves to be seen by all. With how stacked the race is this year, it's unclear whether or not she can jump in and make waves. Suffice it to say, I wouldn't be mad if she did. In any case, Tom Hanks plays a reluctant hero in this classic reinterpretation of this type of story within the Western genre, and does a perfectly adequate job at it - just as he always is in any role. This film practically is riddled with every Western trope in the book, but it doesn't cram them in there to be annoying or in your face - fans of the genre certainly won't mind. Zenger is a girl with no name, until revealed later - she is an orphan twice over, but an unaware Hanks must find her family, and if not, a home for her. The reluctant hero must protect her in the face of danger, and near-death in the unforgiving wilderness, and must journey through the desert in order to find peace, and a place they can both call home.
It will surprise no one to say that the performances are the primary strength of this film. As stated, Helena Zenger bursts onto the scene in a huge way with her portrayal of Johannah/Cicada (spoilers, whoops) in this film. She must not only present herself as vulnerable and wilting as having to fend for herself in a dark, barren world, but also she is ferocious, resourceful, and strong enough to survive on her own and to hold her own in a world that won't accept her, nor care about her. She has terrific chemistry with Hanks throughout this journey, and is the centerpiece of a good many comedic moments. This film absolutely HAS to be carried by these two as it's centered entirely around them, and we're with them every step of the way. Hanks, as I mentioned, is perfectly fine in this role. He is the type of actor who can enter into any role and always bring his brand of acting and it will work. What Hanks does so well, is play an every-man who is clearly not cut out for the task at hand, but turns out being more resourceful and multitalented than he shows on the surface. Beneath the surface, he holds back an inner sadness that we will come to know towards the film's more dramatic conclusion. He doesn't dazzle, but he doesn't need to. Not only that, even if he did, he would be far overshadowed by his co-star who has a bright future ahead of her. The supporting cast, which features many familiar faces, is also perfectly cast and perfectly capable in their roles - no matter how short-lived.
The next greatest strength of the film is that it's so grounded in realism. It's never caught up in its own fantasy of what the mid-to-late 1800s might have been like, but rather, proper research was done to be true to the time period and there's never too much flawed movie logic to make your eyes roll. The authenticity is a refreshing strength that really adds to the grittiness and gives us the ability to sympathize and empathize with our protagonists' situations. The sets feel real, the scenery in the shots are genuine, and the realistic aspects of their journey gives us the confidence that we're being handled with respect as an audience, doing away with dishonesty or contrivances. The attention to detail, and the small but important details, are what make this an effectively grounded story. It's all around just very solid in its presentation and the production team ensured that it was so well done that we couldn't poke too many holes in it. I love films that are grounded in reality, especially if they're Westerns - an aspect which is essential when portraying this time period and the profound hardships these people faced. I'm certain Greengrass pushed for authenticity in every aspect of the film and it shows in the finished product.
The craft in the filmmaking is the next best aspect regarding the film's strengths. The writing, directing, editing, and cinematography all work together so well in tandem. Adapted from the novel of the same name, the source material had to have been strong for this to create such a fine cinematic experience. I haven't been in love with Greengrass' directorial work in a long time, but it seems this is his return to form, and a welcome one at that. The editing was very smooth - it's an incredibly patient film. The pacing of the film is exquisite - it's always a brave choice to challenge the audience's patience, but the editor and Greengrass had no problem in taking such a chance. The cinematography has been hailed by critics and the filmmaking community for months now. After my viewing experience, it's clear why that's the case. Greengrass has been criticized in the past for his shaky-cam cinematography in previous films, but it seems here he took that to heart. The film is much more smoothly and steadily shot. Even in the action sequence, which is a terrific sequence by the way, is shot so well and the action was so legible for the audience. The geography was always clear, we knew where we were and what was at stake with each character. I felt the most impressive filmmaking at work was with the shootout, save for one minor hitch. The shots of the grand scale of the landscapes and vistas were so beautifully shot, and the sun-up, sun-down establishing shots were gorgeous to look at, as well. I would not venture to say it's Oscar-worthy cinematography, but I would not be surprised in the slightest to see it nominated.
News of the World doesn't reinvent the wheel by any means, but overall it's a decent enough Western that will satisfy fans of the genre. Helena Zenger's multi-faceted performance is a sight to behold and I would urge all to see her impressive work here. Tom Hanks once again is perfectly fine and gives a completely inoffensive performance, but ultimately is nothing to write home about. The craft on display by Greengrass and his team is all perfectly adequate and works well enough to hold this film together as a more than competent piece of cinema. The film does just enough above and beyond what most run-of-the-mill Westerns achieve and that is something worthy of pointing out. The authenticity and realism are other primary strengths which contribute to the film's overall success and hold the film's credibility intact. It's worthy of reiterating that it seems Greengrass has listened to certain criticisms in his filmmaking, particularly concerning his shaky-cam action sequences, but has since fixed that with his shootout scene in this film, which I thought was fantastic. There are a couple hiccups in the visuals of the film which deal with CGI and green-screen which were glaringly obvious and caused my eyes to roll. Additionally, the film was often far too predictable in terms of plot and character choices, but there are enough surprises in here to keep you on your toes. Overall, it's a film that I can surely recommend, but I wouldn't go too far out of your way or out of your wallet to do so.
Painfully Average/run of the mill
How did this get made
News of the World is currently seeing a limited theatrical release where theaters are open, and is available on premium video on demand on certain streaming platforms.