Tom Hanks has been in a lot of movies. You would think the actor has appeared in every genre that exists by now and you’d be right. The checklist was almost complete spare a few. While a Tom Hanks-led slasher film (please make this happen) has yet to occur (Ed. Note – does He Knows You’re Alone not count?), the other major genre he’s never played around in, the Western can now be checked off with News of the World.
The Western is probably the most American form of cinema so it’s pretty surprising that Hanks, one of America’s greatest exports, has yet to star in one. Even more surprising is the fact that he chose this one to break into the genre with. It’s not that he’s miscast, quite the opposite there. It’s just that the film isn’t up to Hank’s normal greatness. It’s exciting to see Hanks don a ten-gallon hat but it would have been great if he’d been in a better film overall.
News of the World
Director: Paul Greengrass
Release Date: December 25, 2020 (Theatrical)
News of the World, based on the book of the same name, isn’t your most traditional Western. Our hero isn’t some gunslinger or local sheriff, but instead a newsreader who travels around from Texas town to Texas town after the end of the civil war reading the news to packed town halls on dusty Western streets. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former confederate soldier now doing his best to run away from his past by traveling across Texas. During his long sojourn between two towns, he runs into Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), a young German girl who was kidnapped by “Indians” and then raised by them only to be “rescued” after a military raid on the tribe. Kidd, unable to drop her off with the local military in the next town, commits to transporting Johanna across Texas to her Aunt and Uncle.
From here on out the film functions almost as a series of Western cliche vignettes, as the pair make the perilous, weeks-long journey. There’s a shoot-out with some outlaws who want to sell Johanna, the two run into some Indians, and there’s a town under the control of a crime boss. It’s like little tidbits of better Westerns that unfortunately never connect into a quality, cohesive whole. That stands for the character development sections of the film as well, which often feel out of place among the more traditional Western tropes.
Hanks’ character could be far more interesting given the fact that he opens the film not carrying a gun and seems so far removed from our normal Western hero. Hanks casting is perfect here with his trademark friendly demeanor masking a bit of gruffness you wouldn’t expect from the actor. If the film dealt with this contrast a bit more it would be interesting but instead we get surface-level commentary on his past and his regrets and when violence does occur he turns back into a gunslinger.
There is also a problem with how the film treats its “Indians.” The message seems to be that a merging of the two cultures is the best path forward as Johanna exemplifies this combination and helps lead Kidd out of his post-war depression. However, the film treats its Indians like mythical McGuffins, never showing any as individuals but instead always in long shot, and always obscured. Their biggest role in the film is to literally blow in with a dust storm, faces obscured, and save our hero by giving him a horse without saying a word.
It may be that this is an attempt to display Indians, a term I’m using as it is in the film, as they were historically represented in Westerns — as the other. However, the rest of the movie doesn’t play as a commentary on the genre itself so this is unlikely. Instead, it all feels a bit like appropriation with a little white girl explaining the ways of the natives to the world. It is an odd directorial choice and one that I think fails the film on the whole.
Despite these character issues, the film does shine its brightest when Hanks and Zengel bounce off each other. The emotional points might not hit perfectly but often they do still hit as the pair become beholden to one another — a classic father/daughter relationship forming. Zengel keeps pace well with Hanks, a testament to both her skill as an actor and Hanks’s ability to play off of anything.
It also must be said that the film, on the whole, is entertaining even if it is problematic. Greengrass directs with a flair for the genre that unfortunately gets a bit lost on the small screen but still shines through. His shootouts are tense and while the emotional punches get lost in cliche the action and tension keep the film moving. There’s nothing boring here and when the movie misses it does so not by much. It’s is close to good but just can’t quite get there thanks to the previously discussed decisions.
As a Western, News of the World functions but it doesn’t soar. The grand open space of the American West just doesn’t shine as it should here. There is a bright side, however. Hanks in a cowboy hat is as good as Hanks in anything else. If the actor wants to return to the genre in something even better I wouldn’t say no.