Friday, March 5, 2021

All The News We’d Want to Print: “News of the World”

Tom Hanks may be a national treasure, but it’s easy to get a bit blasé about his movie roles. He’s so readily identified as a decent man, a true Mister Rogers of the screen, that we tend to sell him short. Which is why, I suspect, few people rushed to watch News of the World under COVID conditions, especially those of us who had to pay serious money ($19.99) for an at-home Amazon Prime rental. Yes, this film is Hanks’ first western, but it’s natural to feel that we’ve seen it all before, though with Hanks now wearing a six-gun and appropriate clothing. And when we learn that much of the film is Hanks’ character, a Civil War captain, trying to communicate with a little girl who doesn’t understand English, we’re apt to see this as a repeat of Hanks in Cast Away, in conversation with a volleyball. In other words, the good but lonely man, struggling to get by under trying conditions.

 The latter is quite true, but the film still has a lot to recommend it. James Newton Howard’s musical score is evocative, and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography makes the old west come alive. (New Mexico, a popular filming location in recent years, vividly stands in for Texas.) There’s a fascinating glimpse of the life of a news-reader, an educated but itinerant fellow who roams the countryside, charging ten cents to locals who enjoy hearing him read stories, colorfully embroidered, drawn from daily newspapers. And director Paul Greengrass, known for United 93 and several Jason Bourne films, has always been good at ramping up tension. After a year of pretty much being hidden away at home, I responded strongly to the lure of wide-open spaces.

 But the heart of  News of the World lies in the character played by Hanks. As portrayed, he’s something of a man of mystery. A Texan by birth, he fairly obviously fought on the southern side of the War Between the States, but it’s not at all clear where he stands on the great social issues that fostered the conflict. (This ambiguity is cagey on the filmmakers’ part: we don’t want to imagine a Tom Hanks character fighting for the side that supported slavery.) He wears a wedding ring, but his marital situation remains tantalizingly ambivalent, especially after a kindly innkeeper who seems to know him well points out that he should not keep skirting a return to his home turf. It’s not until late in the movie that the pieces all fall into place, allowing us to know what he’s about as he wends his way across the western landscape.

 Of course it’s that little blonde girl (played by 12-year-old German actress Helena Zengel) who makes all the difference. From the first time he spots her, Hanks’ Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd grasps something of her situation: she was abducted from her family home at a tender age and raised among the Kiowa. It is their buckskin clothing, their behavior, and their language she clings to, unwilling to accept any other family. Of course her relationship with Kidd will evolve, but her situation (not entirely uncommon in the old west, as history tells us) understandably makes us think of a similar plot strand in John Ford’s iconic The Searchers. In that 1956 classic, it’s Natalie Wood who’s been raised among the Indians who massacred her parents, with John Wayne trying to bring her back to “civilization.” Big difference: Wayne’s character is an Indian-hater incapable of empathy for a young girl’s cross-cultural plight. Tom Hanks is just not that kind of guy.




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