In his four decades on screen, Tom Hanks has never before made a western. Until now.
Filmmaker Paul Greengrass is correct. Tom Hanks is taken for granted.
“I think people almost take him for granted at this point because he is always so consistently good,” he tells news.com.au. “I know I’m biased but I think it’s one of his very best performances.”
The performance Greengrass is referring to is in News of the World, as Captain Jefferson Kidd, a veteran and travelling newsreader in 1870 post-Civil War Texas, a time and place filled with “grief and pain”. Kidd comes across a young girl being returned to her German immigrant family after she was kidnapped by a Native American tribe some years earlier.
Greengrass directed the film from a screenplay he and Australian Luke Davies adapted from a novel by Paulette Jiles.
It’s an earnest, subtle and effective performance from Hanks, an actor whose range from slapstick comedy to sombre dramas has cemented him as one of the most lauded thespians of his and any generation.
Hanks brings that undeniable screen presence to News of the World, a visually impressive movie he carries in every scene, with little dialogue. It’s Hanks’ magnetism Greengrass knows he can depend on – just point the camera at Hanks and you know he’ll bring the goods.
News of the World is the second time British filmmaker Greengrass has worked with Hanks.
The first was the Oscar-nominated Captain Phillips, in which Hanks played the titular role.
After four decades in the industry, it’s hard to believe this film is Hanks’ first Western, a genre Greengrass professes a great affinity for, especially the work of John Ford who made The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance.
“If you stop to think about [playing in the same sandbox as Ford], it’s intimidating because he’s one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived,” Greengrass says. “You do have a feeling of climbing up on a giant’s shoulders.
“We were setting up a shot and the sun was going down, the light just looked gorgeous and we had a discussion about how it looked like a John Ford scene. We all felt the ghost of John Ford out there, but you’ve got to be inspired by it and not intimidated by it.”
Greengrass started his career in TV journalism and documentaries before breaking into feature film with Resurrection and The Theory of Flight.
But in the past two decades, he has been associated with two types of films – high-octane action thrillers such as Bourne Ultimatum and Green Zone and dramatisations of calamitous moments in history such as the 9/11 film United 93, the Norwegian mass shooting in 22 July and Bloody Sunday, based on the 1972 Northern Ireland shootings.
News of the World marks a stark departure for Greengrass. For one thing, it doesn’t have any of the heart-thumping handheld camera work that’s become signature of his features, a technique rooted in his documentary beginnings.
News of the World is a meditative and reflective film in which many scenes involve little more than two characters moving through an open landscape in silence.
“It was an opportunity to make a more classically shaped film,” he adds. “When I first read the novel, having made 22 July, I was very preoccupied with what the road after bitterness and division might look like and what’s the story you could tell that would explore the road to healing without being sentimental.
“Then when I read this novel about six months later, I thought, ‘well, that’s it, the story of this newsreader in 1870 was so contemporary and the challenges he faces are so contemporary’. It makes you feel that his journey was then, but it was also now.”
Despite it being set 150 years ago, there are many parallels to the challenges of today, namely how you reconcile after a great social fracture as the US Civil War was.
Greengrass doesn’t pretend to know the answer to the question that plagues every country grappling with the forces of division heightened by COVID and a bruising American election cycle, but he offers up something else with News of the World: Hope.
“I hope people recognise it as their world as well as then, and that hope is always possible. Because it is always possible, even when it doesn’t look very likely. You always have to be optimistic. I’m optimistic, you have to be.”
And that’s coming from someone whose storytelling has parsed some of the darkest moments in our history.
“We’ve overcome bigger challenges than this,” he explains. “We’ll overcome this, not without cost, of course. But hope is always possible. Human ingenuity is a wondrous thing.”
As someone who has released movies both theatrically in cinemas and on streaming services (22 July was a Netflix original and News of the World was sold by Universal to Netflix as the pandemic raged on), Greengrass’s glass-half-full outlook also extends to the future of moviegoing.
“The long-lasting crisis in our industry is how will theatrical movie-making coexist with streaming? I think there’s a spectrum of opinion in our industry. Some people view it as doom and gloom. I actually don’t, I’m optimistic about the future.
“Theatrical movies will comfortably coexist with streaming to the benefit of audiences and for the benefit of the filmmaking community. I think it will all be changed, of course.
“But I believe that within six to nine months, audiences will be back in theatres. I think the emergence of the streamers is the dominant model in our industry. That’s done now, COVID has accelerated a transition that’s going to happen anyway.
“All the studios are going to congregate around some different entity, but some version of the middle ground where streaming and theatrical coexist.”
Ever the optimist.
News of the World is streaming now on Netflix
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