News of the World: Tom Hanks in the Wild Wild West?

Interviewing Tom Hanks is often  a more spontaneous free-wheeling experience than talking to other stars.  The amiable actor likes to talk, and even more so, he likes to tell anecdotes–he’s one of Hollywood’s greatest raconteurs.
News of the World
News of the World film poster.png

Theatrical release poster
Hanks has gone through quite a lot in 2020, a full range of highs and lows. After all, it’s not often that you go from earning your sixth Oscar nomination (for the biopic, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) to being the first celebrity in the world diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus. These emotional ups and downs have the potential of causing a whiplash, but the silver lining is that 2020 is ending on a high note for Hanks as the star of a new superb film, the Western News of the World.
You might ask, Tom Hanks in a Western?  After all, the actor, who’s 64, is known for portraying ordinary American citizens who become heroic through extraordinary circumstances.  He is one of the few thespians to have won two consecutive Oscars, for Philadelphia (1993) in which he played a discriminated gay lawyer with AIDS, and for Forrest Gump (1994), embodying a simpleton patriotic American with below-average IQ.  Among his other best known, uniquely American films are Saving Private Ryan (1998), directed by Spielberg (who’s also a close friend), and Sully (2016) for Clint Eastwood, in which he played Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who became a hero after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight’s passengers and crew.
And now comes News of the World, his second collaboration with Paul Greengrass, after their teaming on Captain Phillips in 2013.  The movie delivers many of the frills and thrills audiences have come to expect from big-screen westerns. But if there’s one particular thing that sets the film apart, it’s the protagonist’s profession. Hanks plays not as a sheriff, or a bounty hunter, or a farmer, but a journalist who travels from town to town to deliver staged readings of the national news.
As expected, Hanks begins the interview with a funny anecdote: “There was a time when so many Westerns were produced that the actors always rode the same horse in every Western they made.” He recalls meeting Jimmy Stewart at his house for a photoshoot, and how he noticed that there was little memorabilia from Stewart’s landmark films. But then he saw a big painting of a horse named Pie, the same horse that Stewart rode in all of his Westerns.
“‘The wranglers would keep it out by Griffith Park,’” Hanks remembered Stewart saying, doing an impression of the It’s a Wonderful Life star. “‘That’s where we all had our horses.’” Henry Fonda happened to make the painting for Stewart, coincidentally, just a few days before he died (in 1978), and so the actor kept the painting hung as a way to remember his longtime friend.
Stewart’s story leads Hanks to recount his experiences riding his own horse, named Wimpy, on the set of News of the World. “Horses have those big, deep eyes on the side of their head, and they just kinda look at you like this,” Hanks says, doing imitation of a horse unblinking eye. And I got the distinct feeling that it was Wimpy, not me, who was deciding whether or not to put up with me.”
News of the World
News of the World film poster.png

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based on News of the World
by Paulette Jiles
Starring
Music by James Newton Howard[1]
Cinematography Dariusz Wolski
Edited by William Goldenberg
Production
companies
Distributed by
Release date
  • December 25, 2020 (United States)
Running time
118 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $38 million[3]
In the movie, based on the novel of the same name by author Paulette Jiles, Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former member of the Confederate States Army who, five years after the Civil War, has taken on a new occupation. Saving people the trouble of being bored by newspapers, he travels from town to town delivering on-stage updates about the latest developments in the country. It’s a nomadic lifestyle, but his work is appreciated at every stop he makes.
Kidd’s life changes in Wichita Falls, after coming across a raided wagon on the road, and discovering a lone survivor, a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel). While she doesn’t speak English, Kidd learns from a record book that she was abducted by the Kiowa Native Americans and raised by them for six years. She was being brought back to her closest living relatives, an aunt and uncle in a town called Red River, when her transport was attacked.
Kidd attempts to shirk the responsibility of making sure she gets where she needs to go. At first, he tries to leave her with friends in a nearby town, but when she continues to try and escape their custody, he realizes what he must do. It’s a long perilous journey, but Kidd makes sure that she gets unharmed to Red River, where she can live some semblance of a normal life.
The narrative is driven by various conflicts that the protagonist and his ward encounter on their journey, and while the structure is rather simple, the results are  captivating. Along the way the duo crosses paths with disturbingly determined pedophiles, fascistic bandits, blinding dust storms, but each crisis is met with clever–and unexpectedly thrilling–resolutions.
Says Hanks: “My character was taking the news that was important and fabulous, that spoke to their lives like railroad constructions or bridges being out, or diseases that were running out of control, along with miracles of modern life that were happening, like elevators built in hotels for the first time.  That he would walk into a town and draw everybody together in an hour of communal enlightening, is almost a naïve impression of what journalism and spreading the news could be.”
 
Clashing with the Director
Delivering the news is one of the movie’s fascinating aspects and one of its great strengths, as the performances draw on Hanks’ natural, instinctive charisma.  But what makes them even more interesting is that they were subject of debate between the director and star, who disagreed on exactly how the news should be delivered.
Talking about the day on set when they shot his first news reading, Hanks said, “We were halfway through the shooting day, and we ended up sitting on the wooden sidewalk of one of our Western towns. And we went at it, he and I, about what these performances of readings of the news meant.  I was hell bent on authenticity and the real news and the real stories, almost of a dry perspective and presentation of them. And he was bent on the connecting of the audience, of the inspiring of the audience, and of the enthrallment of the audience with what this news was.”
Considering how significant the news readings are in the movie, that was a big issue to be at loggerheads about. The actor explained that they were seriously staunch in their opinions, and suggested it wasn’t always friendly. Using his hands, Hanks continued,  “We actually went like this for a bit (smashes knuckles together) because he was saying, ‘You must understand, you are putting on a show to bring people together.’ And I was saying, ‘Paul, you’ve got to understand, I am reading the news to bring people together.'” What Hanks and Greengrass ultimately found, however, was that the conflict was a good thing for the film. Clearly, it’s a nicer when everybody on a set is in agreement, but even when that’s not happening, it creates the opportunity for constructive conversation. The clash between actor and director  gave them a chance to find a middle creative ground that made them both satisfied.
Despite differing views, Greengrass says he always knew Hanks was perfectly suitable for the part: “While Captain Kidd is a character who has seen combat, the greatest weapon he possesses is his charisma, wit, and gravitas, and nobody delivers that like Hanks. His geniality translates across eras. He captivates audiences in the movie as an actor in the same way that he captivates audiences in reality as a person.”
 
News Media: Then and Now
As much as he enjoys talking about his new movie, Hanks is eager to discuss real politics, the news media, the grave state of COVID-19, his particular role in the fight: “We knew that by making a comment about the media news and how news are delivered, we were dealing with a relevant issue.  We live in an era in which opinion masquerades as news, where half-facts and myths have been commoditized and commercialized. A lot of people out there are making an awful lot of money by putting out news that is essentially their subjective opinion.”
He says that while he was glad that the vaccine is now slowly being rolled out, for him “the biggest story, the one I pay attention to, is the fact that we have over 310,000 people dying in only nine months. I don’t understand why this is not the first lead story every day.”
In the past, when I was growing up, television reportage was not dealing with the motivations of the people involved; they were dealing with the facts as they came in, as they were on the ground.  It was viewed as being part of the public good until, honestly, the advent of Cable Television. But that is gone now, where people turn to others sorts of sources in order to find it.”
There are other significant changes: “We used to get about a half hour of news every night from not just trusted sources, but sources whose jobs was to verify and authenticate what the truth is. And now the news is on 24-hours-a-day. You hear the same story over and over gain, and there’s an awful lot of padding that goes along with it.”
“Back then, it was not called news unless and until it had been verified by multiple sources, but that’s just not the way the news works now. Now a days, everybody just searches out what they want to hear by way of websites or social media in order to reinforce what they already believe and know.”
“We were making our movie a year before the Elections (November 3), and it ended up being an awfully prescient piece that we could not anticipate. As it sometimes happens. it’s the context, the circumstances in which your movie is released, that determines its significance, and that’s something that none of us could have predicted while we made it.”
 
Reaction to Vaccine
Speaking of the vaccine, he recalls: “When I was a kid but, around 1961, polio was very much part of our lives, you got polio from fetid water. Polio could cripple you and polio was absolutely everywhere. And I lived in Pleasant Hill, California and on one day, the entire family got into the car. and we all joined a long line of cars that led up to the community college where everybody received the polio vaccine in the form of a sugar cube.  There were doctors there and they’d see how many people were in the car, if there were 10, they gave us 10 sugar cubes in little paper cups. It was without a doubt for the common good.  Science worked in order to help eradicate something deadly and crippling as polio.”
He’s well aware of his celebrity status: “I can’t help but be a public persona, and you make news sometimes for just wearing a goofy hat. You never really know how much people are paying attention to you. I don’t know if I’m a world leader in anything other than goofing off. I don’t know that the powers of empathy were magnified by the fact that I had COVID.  What was perhaps magnified was a sense of the responsibility that was handed over to us. But here was something that was on the forefront, and I think we made the smart decision to share the information and to be completely honest about it.”
He elaborates: “Like anybody, when you test positive, the immediate fear was, ‘Do I have something inside me that is going to put me at greater risk? I have type II diabetes, my wife (actress Rita Wilson) is a cancer survivor. Is that going to put us in greater danger?'” He praises the Australian health care for “taking very good care of us, keeping a close eye on us. After three days it was determined that we were going to be Ok. But that was only half of it. The other half of it was our responsibility. We had to make sure that we weren’t going to give it to anybody else.”
Hanks claims: “I don’t understand how your average person cannot have a sense of responsibility or empathy.  We all need to do that the same way that we would when slowing down in a school zone if you’re driving a car, wear seat belts or use your turn signals. COVID-19 has been a test of us all, and there’s no doubt that some of us have not learned the lessons of the test.”
The interview ends on a more serious note than the tone in which it began: “We’re not done with this crisis yet. It’s great to have a vaccine out, but we’re going to be living with this for a long time. Getting the vaccine is not going to be an easy thing that just rolls by. We are not going to be able to just stop by and grab the stuff.  It’s going to be yet another test of us, and I think some people will pass the test and other people will not.”

Credits:

Directed by Paul Greengrass
Produced by Gary Goetzman, Gail Mutrux, Gregory Goodman

Screenplay by Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies, based on News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Music by James Newton Howard
Cinematography Dariusz Wolski
Edited by William Goldenberg

Production companies: Perfect World Pictures, Playtone, Pretty Pictures

Distributed by Universal Pictures (US); Netflix (International)

Release date: December 25, 2020 (US)

Running time: 118 minutes
Budget $38 million