In a dire year for film, the new western News of the World stands out as one of the few bright spots.
Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum), the film tells the story of Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), a Civil War veteran in Texas traveling from town to town to read newspaper articles as entertainment for local working people. During his travels, he comes across Johanna (Helena Zengel), a young white girl who has been raised by the Kiowa. Her white parents were killed by the Kiowa and her adoptive Kiowa parents were later killed by white people. The captain tries handing her over to military authorities, but they instruct him to take her to her aunt and uncle who live hundreds of miles away.
Most of the narrative is Johanna and the captain's journey to reach her aunt and uncle. There are a pair of shootouts along the way (including a nifty one where they must outwit three men trying to force Johanna into prostitution), but it's not an action/adventure film. One of the most admirable things about News of the World is that it constantly makes you think "a normal Western would've done XYZ here" and then does something different.
That said, fans of conventional Westerns can still enjoy News of the World. Hanks remains as good as anyone at radiating kindness. The relationship between the captain and Johanna is an affecting one. The film's also able to convey how difficult life was in the Old West without descending into misery porn.
Ultimately, it's a film about two people haunted by grief, trying to find a little comfort and peace in a cruel world. That's a message that can resonate with a lot of viewers in 2020, even if our troubles aren't the same as the captain and Johanna's.
News of the World is now playing only in theaters. It will be released on PVOD (Premium Video On-Demand) on January 15.
A final note about theaters in the holiday season. If you're uncomfortable sitting masked in an auditorium right now, you can still help movie theaters during this difficult time. All local theaters will allow you to buy concessions to go without buying a movie ticket. Almost everyone's bought takeout from restaurants since March. If you're not up for two hours at the movies, spend two minutes buying a takeout snack.