Bad things usually happen to Tom Hanks when he’s given the rank of captain. Hanks reteams with his Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass for the Western drama News of the World, based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles. Hard to believe this is Hanks’s first ever Western, if you’re not counting his turn as the affable Sheriff Woody in the Toy Story franchise.
Hanks, now in his mid-60’s, is perfectly suited for the world-weary role of Captain Jefferson Kidd, a former officer in the Confederate army. Kidd ekes out a meager living traveling from town to town to read the news for audiences that aren’t always the most receptive. When the crowds get riled up over politics, the good captain is smart enough to break out an inspiring human interest story.
While traveling the dusty roads of the Texas plains, Kidd comes across the body of a black Union soldier, who had been lynched, and a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel). Her birth parents were killed and she was raised by the Kiowa, who in turn, were wiped out by the army. With her escort dead, Kidd reluctantly takes on the duty of taking Johanna to her next of kin. Not an easy task as Johanna speaks no English and remembers nothing about her life before being taken by the Kiowa. The unlikely duo will also have to deal with the harsh elements and some sinister individuals.
Paul Greengrass’s frenetic camera style would seem like a poor fit for a laconic Western. Luckily, the director of the Bourne sequels dials back the shaky camera work to mimic an appropriate John Ford style with echoes of The Searchers. Greengrass allows every shot to breathe and truly captures the beauty and loneliness of New Mexico’s deserts (subbing for the Lone Star State).
It should come as no surprise that Tom Hanks gives a stirring performance as Captain Kidd. This is the type of kindly paternal role Peter Fonda or Jimmy Stewart would have gotten in their heyday. Yet, the real star of the film has to be young German actress Helena Zengel, who came to prominence as a traumatized foster child in System Crasher. Zengel deftly emotes so much through body language while only speaking the occasional broken English.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Picture quality is pristine and perfectly captures the beautiful landscapes. Shadowy night scenes aren’t murky and still have clarity.
The audio is presented with a Dolby Atmos track. While there is a bit of gunslinging in News of the World, this isn’t a shoot ‘em up style Western. The sound design really shines with the sounds of the Old West, like hooves clomping and wind whistling.
Partners: Tom Hanks & Helena Zengel (7:01) is a featurette that focuses on the film’s leads and how well they worked together.
Western Action (7:37) looks at Tom Hanks going to cowboy school and performing all the horse riding and gun fighting required for the role.
Paul Greengrass Makes News of the World (10:59) focuses on Greengrass’s directing style and staying true to history.
The Kiowa (3:57) is a brief featurette about the Native American tribe depicted in the film.
Rounding out the bonus features are a selection of deleted scenes and an audio commentary track with Paul Greengrass.
Film Value: 7
While you can’t exactly categorize News of the World as a minimalist Western, you can call it a movie that does so much with so little. There’s no huge cast, no wealth of dialogue or massive set pieces, instead there’s solid storytelling built on great performances. Hanks is just the right man to play the upright cowboy in a de-romanticized west still rife with tension and indifference.