Director Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks reunite once again. Their previous film (Captain Phillips) was a taut, tension-filled drama about the real-life story of the hijacking of a boat by pirates. This latest collaboration from them is, for the most part, another big success. This time, however, they tell a very different kind of story.
Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a lonely man who travels around the Texas area bringing news of the world. He is a veteran of the Civil War. A few years have passed since it ended, but its repercussions are still felt amongst even the smallest of towns. Captain Kidd's news work as a sort of entertaintment, but they also help folk have a sense of connection to the world. While traveling to the next town, he finds a destroyed carriage next to the road, with the coachman hung on a tree branch and a young girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), hiding nearby. She cannot speak English, but he finds papers indicating she was meant to be taken to her closest relatives since her whole family died. The girl refuses to go with him, but he eventually convinces her to do so. And so, they set out to the next town to figure out what to do.
While perhaps not Greengrass' best film to date, it is nonetheless an excellent piece of filmmaking. The story centers around both the Captain and Johanna. They are two wandering souls that have lost pretty much everything and have yet to find their place in a new world where a lot has changed for them, both around them and in the most personal aspects of their lives. As they go from town to town, it is obvious that other people are in similar situations, with the Civil War having affected many of these people in different ways.
The film naturally and methodically builds a strong and confident emotional core as the Captain's and Johanna's travels leads them to different adventures as they go to different towns in search of Johanna's relatives. While this gives the film an almost episodic feel, it hardly affects it as a whole. Instead, these adventures help to develop both the Captain's and Johanna's characters, both as individuals as well as the relationship between them. Despite the fact they cannot really understand each other due to the language barrier, they find ways to communicate.
While the story is told from Captain Kidd's point of view, the script is careful to develop Johanna's character with great results. Newcomer Helena Zengel does very impressive work showing quite a range of emotions for Johanna. She carefully achieves a good balance between expressing how Johanna feels while not going over the top, with enough subtlety to make her character both interesting and strong, with the events that life has thrown at her making her tough and resourceful. She plays off Tom Hanks extremely well, while Hanks himself, as ususal, does not disappoint. I would not be suprised if they are both nominated for awards.
The other aspects of the film, the cinematography, the score, editing, etc., are all top-notch also. Paul Greengrass' directing is, for the most part, excellent. There are a couple of instances where it almost seems like he is channeling a documentary style which he has used in previous films. In this case, however, it does not feel appropiate, so it can take one out of the story for a bit. Thankfully, those moments are few and happen far between, with the camerawork recovering fairly quickly.
It is worth mentioning there are a couple of suspense-filled sequences that have almost become Greengrass' signature after the Jason Bourne franchise, and Captain Phillips. Both properties have extensive sequences that reach almost unbearable levels of tension. While News of the World is more of a drama/western than it is an action or suspense film, its tension-filled sequences are still notable and enhance the story and characters while still being extremely effective and suspensful.
While the emotional core starts off very subtle, it slowly but surely becomes the core of the story. By the end, the film reaches quite an emotional crescendo, with the Captain's and Johanna's relationship having a very satisfying arc while making complete sense for both of their characters. It is emotional but at the same time it is quite mature while still being very satisfying. It is a tricky balance which thankfully the cast and crew achieve quite well. It might not be a perfect film, but the few drawbacks feel almost like nitpicks, with the bulk of its elements being quite excellent and coming together to achieve a very solid western with plenty of heart and emotion while avoiding becoming cheesy or saccharine. Very highly recommended if you can make a trip to the movies.