News of the World (2020)

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks star in "News of the World" from director Paul Greengrass. (Universal Pictures) 



Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Angelo Covino, Fred Hechinger, Thomas Francis Murphy, Neil Sandilands

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Filmmaker Paul Greengrass reunites with Tom Hanks after the two collaborated on 2013’s “Captain Phillips” for a look at Texas life in 1870. The post-Civil War drama serves as an allegory of our present times — The country was politically divided, racial violence ran rampant, and a pandemic (in this case Cholera) swept the nation impacting New York first. Hanks plays a storyteller who travels from town to town to give people, as the film’s title indicates, the news of the world. Along the way, he crosses paths with a young, orphaned girl (Helena Zengel) and reluctantly agrees to deliver her to the only family she has left.

One thing Tom Hanks can’t say is “This ain't my first rodeo” because it is. And by that, I mean his first Western. After forty years in the business, it’s been a long time coming for Hanks who is a welcomed addition to the genre. He’s around the same age as Clint Eastwood when he made “Unforgiven” which takes place 10 years after “News of the World.” The two films are as different as night and day but both actors play widowers who were not part of the racial bias that permeated the nation after the Civil War. Also, there’s an enthusiastic young gunslinger named John Calley in “News” played by a very good Fred Hechinger (“Eighth Grade”) who is reminiscent of Jaimz Woolvett’s The Schofield Kid from “Unforgiven.” However, as far as comparisons go, Greengrass roams closer to John Wayne territory, “The Searchers” and “True Grit” come to mind.

Hanks plays Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of three wars who, armed with a stack of newspapers from around the country, moves from one Texas town to another where people gather to hear him speak in what resembles a town hall meeting. Many of the small towns had no newspapers and this was the only way people could get the news from the rest of the country as well as Europe and Asia. A tin cup was passed around for tips to help Kidd make a living.

While crossing the Texas plains Kidd encounters an overturned stagecoach, it’s driver, a young black man, is found lynched from a tree with a sign that indicates the vile racism that pervades the Lone Star State. In the bushes hides the only passenger, 10-year-old Johanna Leonberger who goes by her Indian name Cicada. She is an orphan twice over after being taken by the Kiowa tribe at age six from her German immigrant parents — which explains why she only speaks Kiowa dialect — then after being raised by Native Americans for six years, Johanna becomes an orphan again when her new family is killed by soldiers.

Kidd tries to return the young girl to the military branch in charge of displaced immigrants, but he’s informed that it will be at least six months before they can take her in so Kidd decides to deliver Johanna to her only surviving relatives, an aunt and uncle who live on a farm in Castroville, near the Captain’s hometown San Antonio. The two leave Wichita Falls on a journey that will bring Kidd and Johanna closer together as they encounter a number of wicked scoundrels along the way.

Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles with a screenplay by Luke Davies, and Greengrass who wrote the final draft, “News of the World” was shot in chronological order which is smart as Hanks and Zengel developed their friendship over the course of filming which coincides with the close relationship developing between their characters. Hanks donned a CG cowboy hat as Sheriff Woody but that doesn’t count making this his first appearance in a Western. When you think of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the genre, Hanks would fall in line with a modern-day Gary Cooper or James Stewart, even Randolph Scott. As Capt. Kidd, he fills a void missing in today’s Westerns, an A-list celebrity who instantly symbolizes the righteous cowboy hero. Jeff Bridges came close with the “True Grit” remake and “Hell or High Water.”

One thing is for sure, they don’t make enough westerns these days. A couple of years ago Chloé Zhao released the wonderful film “The Rider” featuring real-life Native American cowboys. The breakout star of the film, Brady Jandreau, a Christian and former rodeo star, delivered such a profound performance that he could easily become the next hero the genre needs. Unfortunately, Jandreau doesn’t seem interested in a Hollywood career opting for the quiet ranch life while raising quarter horses.

Speaking of breakout stars, 12-year-old Helena Zengel is terrific as Johanna/ Cicada. Her character is a German immigrant, and the actress was born and grew up in Berlin adding authenticity to the role. The language barrier between her character and Kidd makes Zengel’s role more challenging as she is forced to rely on body movement and facial expressions. It’s such a natural performance that you immediately warm up to her portrayal of Johanna. As the on-screen relationship develops between Hanks and Zengel the audience connects in a similar fashion, growing closer to her character as the story unfolds. Pay close attention to the scene where Kidd and Johanna teach each other English and Kiowa as they cross the prairie while pointing out the wildlife and vegetation. It’s such a great bonding moment and for a minute Hanks sounds like his character Fred Rogers from “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” as he educates the young girl with such grace and warmth.

Greengrass injects moments of peril throughout the film as Kidd and Johanna encounter a few vile individuals including Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), an outlaw kingpin ruling the Hill Country. His ideal Texas includes fewer Indians, Blacks, and Mexicans. He even prints his own newspaper to spew his vicious propaganda. Just wait until you see what happens when he tries to get Kidd to read from his publication.

The film’s other baddie, a human trafficker named Almay who wants to get his hands on young Johanna is played by Michael Angelo Covino from this year’s surprise hit comedy “The Climb.” He was a jerk in the indie cyclist film but here Covino is despicable. He reminds me of great character actor Len Lesser who tangles with Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Most people will remember him as Uncle Leo in “Seinfeld” but he should have appeared in more westerns. He was perfect as the villain and so is Covino.

“News of the World” features the picturesque landscapes usually associated with the genre beautifully captured by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“The Martian”) who was inspired by the “The Searchers” and “The Assassination of Jesse James” while shooting in New Mexico substituting for Texas. There are a few Western staples that you won’t find in the Greengrass film, a saloon, a gunslinging duel, and Native Americans portrayed in a negative light. This is a period piece but, in many ways, “News” feels contemporary especially since it serves as an allegory of the present state of the nation. Hanks and Zengel are ace-high so if you feel comfortable visiting a cinema practicing safety protocols, saddle up for this future classic.

(3 ½ stars)

Opens Friday, December 25 in theaters

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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