Awards Season Chasing Oscar 2021 Movies

‘News of the World’ Contemplates the Might of Tom Hanks (and Storytelling)

It's almost unfair how much the Western drama puts on him, but the Hollywood legend proves why he's worth it.

Tom Hanks is America’s actor.

That isn’t a statement I make lightly. Few pop culture figures have captured the public’s imagination for so long, across a wide breadth of roles. Philadelphia, A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Forrest Gump, Toy Story, Saving Private Ryan, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; you could rattle off your favorite performances and likely encounter someone with an entirely different list. Hanks has sustained his stardom for four decades by examining the bright and dark sides of goodness and decency through his inherent accessibility. He’s a star who didn’t need intellectual property or a franchise to fill theater seats, the kind they don’t make anymore.

The Tom Hanks persona works hard in News of the World, a Western drama set in post-Civil War Texas. Formerly a captain in the Confederate Army, Hanks’ Jefferson Kidd now makes his living as a newsreader for the townspeople, traveling across the state. While on the road, Kidd encounters a young white girl (Helena Zengel) hiding near a lynched black man’s body. Kidd learns that the girl, named Johanna, had been raised by Native Americans and was being returned to her family by the black man before being ambushed. Begrudgingly, Kidd agrees to continue the mission, even though he has no aptitude for children, and she only speaks the Kiowa language. An inability to communicate isn’t their only challenge; journeying across a land bruised and embittered, the two must work together to survive the obstacles in their way.

News of the World is a sober, straightforward, and slight movie. It is handsomely made, filmed in hazy lighting and faded, earthy tones that capture the wilderness’s intense stillness. There are no plot twists or character heel-turns. The thrills are relatively restrained, with action sequences that may quirk an eyebrow but won’t quicken the pulse. Director Paul Greengrass doesn’t make huge emotional swings or uncover profound thematic truths. His aim is simple: to contemplate the power of storytelling to bridge divides between people, as small as a grizzled war vet and a young girl, and as big as a nation decimated by war.

Tom Hanks in News of the World (courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Greengrass leverages Tom Hanks’ image to support his effort. News of the World relies heavily on Jefferson to convey the physical, intellectual, and spiritual toll the war has taken on the South. Through his stoic, but not entirely impartial, gaze, we see communities ravaged by poverty and tensely managed by Union soldiers. Jefferson primarily observes his surroundings, but the film leans into the empathy he feels for his countrymen. He does have limits: the lynching Jefferson stumbles upon visibly perturbs him, and he gives the man a proper burial. If we telegraph Hanks onto Jefferson, then, of course, he would do that. However, the film doesn’t explain what that burial means to his character. As a Captain in the Confederate Army, presumably fighting for slavery, why does a lynching disturb him so much? Does he share his townsfolk’s racist beliefs, or did something change his mind? Greengrass doesn’t offer any insight, letting our preconceived notions of Hanks fill in the gap.

While his political and military past are left opaque, Jefferson isn’t entirely passive. Despite his initial reservations and lack of experience with children, he dutifully protects Johanna and breaches her defenses through gentle persistence and shared experience. Presumably, due to their budding relationship, Jefferson uses his job as a newsreader to inspire a town run by an oppressive and exploitative racist, sharing a story of perseverance and hope from a city in Pennsylvania. The scene crystallizes the film’s foundational belief that sharing stories and experiences can help change minds and hearts. It’s a simple message that Oscar voters will gobble up, but Hanks again is key to selling it.

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in News of the World (courtesy of Universal Pictures)

News of the World ultimately rests on Tom Hanks’ shoulders. Most modern assessments of acting glorify actors who “disappear” into their roles, separating themselves from their public persona and previous performances. Hanks makes a convincing case for why the film didn’t ask him to do that. Everything that works about News of the World can be traced back to his gifts as a performer: his authority, vulnerability, nobility, and paternal essence. He elevates a character that other actors might’ve gotten lost in by merely being Tom Hanks. Whereas he is a known quantity, Helena Zengel is a revelation as Johanna. At only 12 years old, she modulates between a bevy of emotions with the precision of an actress with decades’ more experience and more than holds her own against Hanks. It would be a travesty if awards voters ignored her performance. 

The cynic in me would label News of the World is particularly shameless Oscar bait. It certainly checks the right boxes: an attractive historical Western drama about the power of storytelling, starring one of Hollywood’s beloved elder statesmen. And yet, with his grizzled visage and comforting eyes, it feels like a celebration of Tom Hanks, someone who has endured so long that he’s almost underrated. The film’s success, despite its weaknesses, is a testament to his sheer talent and confirms his status as one of the greats.

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