News of the World, 2020.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Tom Astor, Travis Johnson, Andy Kastelic, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham and Elizabeth Marvel.
Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels from town to town reading the news to anyone who will pay money. His discovery of a young girl (Helena Zengel) abandoned in the wildness, turns a noble vocation into an unorthodox pilgrimage, as together they journey back to her family.
This has all the hallmarks of a classic Western. Lone protagonists nursing family tragedy, doe-eyed innocents offering paternal redemption and road trip dynamics bringing them together. This is copybook stuff which feels lived in, looked after and nostalgic without once drifting into sentimentality. There is a world-weary quality to Captain Kidd which gives him bearing, imbues character but looks almost effortless. Tom Hanks is formidable yet rarely raises his voice in angry, is informed yet never lauds it over his audience and exhibits fragility without once looking weak.
He may be an amalgamation of Western archetypes, yet in the hands of this seasoned veteran discoveries feel fresh. On screen from the opening minute to its closing credits, Captain Kidd is a masterclass in characterisation emphasised through broad brush strokes. The American Civil War is ongoing, there is talk of emancipation and feelings are running high. Director Paul Greengrass unpacks dramatic elements amongst swathes of sun-baked scrubland, dust bowl townships and jostling cities. Miscreants, vagabonds and enterprising businessmen stand shoulder to shoulder at a time of unrivalled innovation.
Production designer David Crank ensures that every inch of this world feels tangible and reflects the era. There is no Hollywood sheen to be seen, but instead some sun dappled sepia tones utilised by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Employing this within his colour palette he is able to enhance atmosphere and underpin performance, without diminishing dramatic intent. Paul Greengrass employs this perfect depiction of time and place to embrace a genre, rather than make any allegorical statement. However, beyond its traditional genre tropes this film really triumphs in its casting of Helena Zengel.
There is no denying that the unerring prepossession she puts into her portrayal of Johanna beggars belief. Sharing sparing lines of dialogue between baleful glances, she is more than a match for her Oscar winning counterpart. There is a naturalism to her which seems devoid of conventional technique, absorbed by character and reactive only to on screen stimulus. Flashes of a young Anna Paquin from The Piano, or Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon come close if comparisons could be made. Something which makes News of the World noteworthy, above and beyond the proposition of Tom Hanks reuniting with his Captain Phillips collaborator. However, in spite of the casting, production design and cinematography there is a shortfall which leaves this sumptuous Western wanting.
News of the World fails to confront the more unsavoury elements of frontier life for which Westerns are renowned. Although Captain Kidd and Johanna are put in perilous situations, there seems to be a lack of tangible threat, either during their journey or in its aftermath. Simply put the film lacks backbone, skirts around unpleasant home truths and feels too nice. Despite the inherent authenticity, pinpoint perfect aesthetics and undeniable screen chemistry News of the World avoids getting dirty.
For a frontier fable packed with cowboys, Indians and civil war overtones there is a distinct lack of conflict, consequence or discomfort. News of the World may pay homage to a genre which dates back to the studio system and beyond, but somehow feels oddly sanitised never allowing this world to get under its fingernails.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★