By John H. Foote

(****) In theatres and then streaming

Anyone out there who still does not believe in the staggering talents of Tom Hanks? Since 1988 the man has been one of modern films’ finest and most beloved actors, winning two Academy Awards, nominations for a measly four others (should be at least four more), four Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor, a New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. He never ceases to astound me with his versatility, and his manner of bringing the absolute truth to each scene he portrays.

And after 35 years he is still surprising us.

Last year as Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) he was portraying one of the most famous children’s entertainers in the world, yet three minutes after seeing him as Rogers for the first time Hanks was gone, and only the character existed. It was astounding to behold, truly. After his major breakthrough with his Oscar nominated performance in Big (1988) he suffered the debacle of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), vowing never to let that happen again, and it has not. Hanks dominated the nineties with one great performance and film after another, beginning with the smash hit, home run movie A League of Their Own (1992), arguably among the finest sports films ever made. “There’s no crying in baseball” he roars at a blonde lady after she makes mistakes that cost the team a run, and after being yelled at she tears up, to Hanks’ horror. He should have been a Supporting Actor nominee for that film, but the next two years he won the Academy Award as Best Actor for Philadelphia (1993) and best of all Forrest Gump (1994). And his domination of the nineties continued with You’ve Got Mail (1999), another blockbuster romantic comedy; Apollo 13 (1995) portraying astronaut James Lovell, trapped in space; Saving Private Ryan (1998), giving an extraordinary performance as a battered war veteran trying to stay alive; and he deserved a third Oscar for Cast Away (2000), still his finest work. In the 19 years before his next Oscar nomination he was often deserving in films such as the beautiful gangster epic Road to Perdition (2002), for his Chaplinesque performance in The Terminal (2004), his stunning multiple character work in Cloud Atlas (2012), a searing performance in Captain Phillips (2013), and possibly for Bridges of Spies (2015). His best work in the last 20 years remains Captain Phillips, and his scenes in the medical bay after being rescued, terrified, in shock, on the verge of tears are astonishing in their raw, visceral near primal power. His voice is quaking, urgent, uncertain, and it might be the finest 15 minutes of acting in that year, in his career.

Hanks reunited with the director of that film, Paul Greengrass, for his new work, News of the World, a western that some critics are comparing to The Searchers (1956), True Grit (1969/2010) and The Missing (2003). They are not wrong, but there is a great deal of originality in this film, based on the book by Pauline Jiles which came out four years ago. From book to the screen in just four years is a remarkable turnaround time, but both Hanks and his director wanted to make the film, were into making the film. So they did, and they delivered one of the year’s very best films, and Hanks gives one of his finest performances. If he is not a nominee for Best Actor, it is safe to assume the Academy has decided he has had enough, which frankly is shameful and not its decision to make. The best should be the best, period, no matter how many times you have won or been nominated. If you are that good, celebrate it, honor it.

Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kidd, a widower, just five years after the Civil War, a conflict that tore the soul out of America, its impact still felt today. Kidd travels the settled towns in the United States, still recovering from a savage conflict, and reads to the people willing to pay, the world news from various newspapers. His belief, his fervent hope, is that by hearing of the changes taking place around the globe, the people might find some hope for their future. Like the townsfolk he encounters, Kidd is equally haunted by his past, struggles to come to terms with his own difficult past.

Kidd moves from town to town hoping to bring a sense of hope to the people of the various towns, but the truth is he needs that hope as much as he believes they do.

In one of the towns he comes into he encounters a 10-year-old girl, portrayed brilliantly by Helena Zengel, a child of German settlers who had been kidnapped and taken by the Kiowa tribe and raised as one of their own. Found abandoned, unclaimed, Kidd decides to take the child, Johanna, to her surviving family, if he can indeed find them. Their journey is one into each character’s heart of darkness, coming face to face with their nightmares and moving past them, putting the worst of their past behind them.

Across the desolate, spiky land they travel, encountering all sorts of obstacles, including men who want the child to sell or for their own sexual gratification, we gain a great appreciation for anyone choosing to live as they do. Kidd fiercely protects Johanna, more than willing to die for her if need be, believing she deserves to laugh, to have joy in her life, perhaps sensing if he gives the child that, it makes amends for what has transpired in his past. Just by the look on his face, the manner in which he carries himself, as though he bore unbearable weight, haunted by what he has seen and possibly done, we know he has walked through a living hell and it threatens to reach from the past and pull him back into a pit of despair.

The two have a language barrier, but the Indians taught the girl to ride, and she can ride a horse as though born to do it. This is the beginning of an uneasy friendship between the two that will grow into a surrogate father relationship. Strangely the relationship with the girl seems to heal the scars lashed into the Captain’s soul, just as he heals hers.

Greengrass captures the ferocity of the land in all its barren, rugged beauty. One wonders how people could survive it, yet they do. The beauty of the films of Greengrass is that atmosphere is so much a secondary character in his films. Think of the claustrophobic aspects of the stunning United 93 (2006) or the constantly moving ocean in Captain Phillips (2013). Here the land seems angry, and the dry, hard earth speaks to Kidd, just as the sparse towns do where he reads his precious news.

Hanks delivers what might be the year’s finest performance by an actor, perfect. Any doubts anyone might have at Hanks in a western? Park them, he is brilliant, just as he nearly always been through his long career. I was a big believer Hanks should have won a third Academy Award for Cast Away (2000) but maybe this is it, this could be his finest since that stunning performance.

Miss Zengal is perfect as Johanna, more than deserving of a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, which could help make the category among the youngest in recent years. The frontrunner might be Amanda Seyfried in Mank (2020), but the circle could be closing, with Zengal planting a flag along with the young actresses from A Midnight Sky (2020) and Borat Subsequent Movie (2020), all earning Oscar chatter.

The cinematography in the film is brilliant, and the score is perfection, gently accompanying the film, never overpowering it. All in all, a superb film, among the year’s very best, arguably the year’s finest. It is quite rare these days to get a great western film, but every few years one gets made, and superbly pays homage to the westerns of years gone by while being relevant for today. It is forever my fervent hope they keep making westerns, because like this one they are often deceptive in their simplicity, possessed by a dark, unforgiving heart. Once in a while, the characters within find some form of redemption even they do not see coming. For me it makes the experience unforgettable.

Greengrass has created a towering achievement to stand alongside the greatest westerns in film history. Magnificent.

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