Monday, March 29, 2021

Tom Hanks Double Bill: News of the World and Greyhound

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World.

When movie lovers look for a studio-era comparison to Tom Hanks, the star who crops up most often is Jimmy Stewart: the folksy charm, the avuncular warmth. You certainly wouldn’t imagine anyone else being cast as Walt Disney (in Saving Mr. Banks, which didn’t do much for Hanks) or Fred Rogers (in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which was worth watching for Hanks alone). But just as often I find myself thinking of Gregory Peck, though Peck was a terribly dull actor and Hanks is a superlative one. Audiences responded to what they perceived as a core of decency in Peck; in Barbara Kopple’s 1999 documentary A Conversation with Gregory Peck, the educated, articulate Angelenos, most of whom had grown up with Peck’s movies, spoke to him from their seats as if they were questioning Atticus Finch. Hanks has the same quality, but he doesn’t shy away from interior conflict – Peck was hopelessly fake whenever he was called on to play darker notes – and he conveys decency dramatically. That’s what he does as Fred Rogers, and the intricacy and subtlety of his acting transcend the ridiculous script, which swallows up poor Matthew Rhys as the main character, a cynical journalist Rogers is called on to rescue.

In Paul Greengrass’s News of the World, set in 1870 Texas, Hanks plays Captain Ernie Kidd, a Civil War veteran who has made a meager but satisfying living traveling from town to town reading news stories aloud to assembled crowds. Though his niche is highly specialized, as a performer Kidd is in the Charles Dickens line: he brings stories to thrilling life. (Unfortunately the movie doesn’t show us enough of his act.) Between towns he comes across a lynched black man hanging from a tree and a terrified ten-year-old white girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel), raised by Kiowa Indians who’d murdered her family and who were recently killed themselves by white men; the lynched man was transporting her to a Union checkpoint so she could be reunited with her only living relatives, German immigrant farmers. Kidd tasks himself with completing the job but finds that the agent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs is absent for three months, and there’s no one else to ferry her to her uncle and aunt. So with some reluctance he takes on that extended and much more challenging burden. Some of what the letter he finds on the body of the black man doesn’t tell him about Johanna he learns from the innkeeper Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel, in a good small role), a friend and casual lover of Kidd’s who speaks Kiowa and knows their customs. It’s she who identifies Johanna’s shorn blonde hair as a sign of mourning and explains that the girl has been orphaned twice.

Hanks is extremely good, the young actress Helena Zengel is flawless, and the dramatic set-up is promising. But, surprisingly for a movie by this director, News of the World quickly defaults to melodrama. In town Kidd is approached by three men, Rebel army veterans like himself, who want to buy the girl from him so they can pimp her out; he gets Johanna away from them but they catch up with him on the plains and he has to fight them off. With the help of the girl, who learned something about gunfighting from her Kiowa adoptive tribe, he’s successful.  But the filmmaking in this sequence is scrappy and unconvincing – not words one normally applies to Greengrass. (Paul Greengrass directed one of Hanks’s triumphs, Captain Phillips, as well as Bloody Sunday, United 93 and three of the Bourne movies.) This is the movie’s low point, but the setpiece that follows, in which Kidd wanders into a community where militia carry out the commands of a racist demagogue (Michael Angelo Covino) and incites an insurrection, is better staged but no less melodramatic.

News of the World is exasperating because there’s a fine idea at its core that the title underlines. Kidd brings the outside world to the residents of the towns he visits, but he’s closed himself off from the world, for reasons that become clear at the end of the film, and only his emotional commitment to Johanna can bring him back to it. But the script by Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on a novel by Paulette Jiles, barely hints at the truth; all we know is that Kidd is dragging his feet about returning to his wife in San Antonio. When the movie sketches in his backstory, it does so clumsily, so though you can see why Greengrass has held it back, it feels almost like the movie forgot about it and then has to race to catch us up. What’s even more frustrating is that there are two great scenes, one involving Kiowa whom Kidd and Johanna encounter during a sandstorm and one at the farm of Johanna’s relatives, whom of course she doesn’t remember. (She was three when she was abducted.) The second of these scenes is breathtaking; it recalls the master (east) Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray (especially the end of “The Postmaster,” the first short-story segment in his Two Daughters). It’s the high point of both Zengel’s performance and Hanks’s. News of the World is affecting, but these two moments give you a sense of what it might have been.

Tom Hanks in Greyhound.

No doubt because of his looks, Peck often got cast as men of action, but he didn’t get under their surface. Hanks does. He’s terrific not only in Captain Phillips but also in Sully, Saving Private Ryan (the only one of his collaborations with Steven Spielberg besides The Post that has brought out his best qualities) and his two most unusual roles, as the shipwrecked FedEx man in Cast Away and as the playboy who winds up manoeuvring an uprising of Afghan rebels against a Soviet invasion in Charlie Wilson’s War – my two favorite Hanks movies and Hanks performances. If you have Apple TV, you can watch him in both News of the World and Greyhound, in which he does excellent work as Captain Krause, an American naval commander in the North Atlantic during World War II whose first mission is to escort an Allied convoy through U-boat-infested waters. The movie, which Hanks adapted from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel The Good Shepherd, is a speedy ninety-five minutes, taut, gripping and beautiful to look at. Shelley Johnson shot it, and the director is Aaron Schneider, turning out only his second feature in more than a decade. (I liked his first, Get Low, as well.) This isn’t the first time I’ve observed that the Second World War is an apparently bottomless resource of amazing stories: as soon as you think you’ve heard them all you discover a corner of that history you knew little or nothing about. That’s the way I felt watching Greyhound. Hanks is backed by a solid ensemble of mostly young men, few of whom I recognized, but he carries the picture. His most memorable scenes, back to back, focus on his grief over the loss of a member of Krause’s crew; Hanks is practically a genius at playing moments where he has to delve into high emotion and rein it in at the same time. This actor works more than almost any Hollywood leading man, and it’s impressive to note how many of his performances in recent years have been first-rate.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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