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News of the World

Released 2020. Director: Paul Greengrass

TRAVELLING NEWSREADER: ONE OF THOSE AMAZING JOBS THAT HAVE GONE THE WAY of the dodo. Back in the late 1800s, a great many people cannot read and news travels at the speed of a horse. A literate man with a pile of newspapers can make money by going from town to town, spreading news and stories to a rapt audience who pays a dime each for an evening of prime time entertainment.

Captain Jefferson Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War, plies the rugged west alone bearing tales from afar. When he comes across a young orphan lost in the woods, the man is determined to be the Good Samaritan and return the girl to her relatives, even if it's a hundred miles away.

The role of Captain Kidd is quintessential Tom Hanks. He would risk his own life to make sure the child is reunited with relatives she’s never met, while fully aware of the grave dangers along the way. A troop of wild horses couldn’t drag him away from doing the decent thing.

News of the World is the story of a fatherly figure set against the expansive wild west, a good man who’d give his life for the child he barely knows. The child Johanna is of German lineage and raised in captivity by a tribe of Native Indians killed before she’s found in hiding by Kidd.

To say Johanna is resistant to help from anyone is to understate the obvious. She is a headstrong girl who fears nothing and nobody. Constantly scowling and in bad temper, Johanna is a handful for any parent, let alone some man who’s a total stranger and has no experience is looking after a child who bites when defensive. Communication is rudimentary as Johanna doesn’t speak a word of English.

Twelve-year-old Helena Zengel is a scene-stealer, not only because she can do angry really well, but the kind of anger inside someone who doesn’t have a voice because nobody understands her.

Kidd doesn’t give up, and Johanna doesn’t pretend to like him more. Time and shared experience, especially the life-threatening kind, however, can change the dynamics of any relationship.

Over their long trek across the arid, dusty and desolately beautiful landscape (filmed by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski in what is perhaps his best work to date), the pair begin to bond like surrogate father-daughter, with a growing tacit understanding to look out for each other.

The importance of mutual trust cannot be overstated at times when they run into people with ill intentions. An encounter with a couple of small-time crooks out to snatch the girl and kill her chaperone provides the movie with some action sequence characteristic of Hollywood western, complete with shootouts, hide-and-seek on a hillside and a runaway horse and cart.

Coming from director Paul Greengrass, who’s better known for high-energy action blockbusters The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, and intense hijack dramas United 93 and Captain Phillips, News of the World is by comparison a slow ride, a deviation from the tight-grip stylistics in those films. In his first Western, Greengrass shows his keen eye on the grand vista on the landscape, his ability to bring out the nuances in his characterisations, and most of all, his direction that fully capitalises the priceless appeal of his leading man.

This is the second collaboration between Greengrass and Hanks after Captain Phillips. Hanks steps into this role with effortless ease, the kind of character he embraces so exceedingly well there’s no chance he’d muck it up. He plays the lonely middle-age working man with just the right touch of melancholy. He doesn’t overplay the paternal instincts but you feel the man’s innate protectiveness of a child. And when he finds that his wife has died while he’s been away, you feel the widower’s realisation that you should spend your time with the person you care about. Hanks achieves all this without really doing much – that’s what he makes us think – and it’s hard to imagine another actor who could be as naturally convincing. When Hanks is subtle, he’s very good at it.

Watching Hanks in this movie in yet another paragon of virtue makes me think this is the man’s role in real life. You see a Tom Hanks movie and you know what to expect, someone who takes the world’s cynicism away and makes you want to go out and do some good. All the world will be fine if we have a Tom Hanks in our lives. He’s like chicken soup when you’re not feeling all that great.


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