Tom Hanks has built up so much cred over the years from choosing excellent roles in major films that he is on the short list of movies I’m instantly keen on watching just because he is attached. When his latest, News of the World, released theatrically on Christmas Day, I was anxious for it to get its eventual home release. It worked its way to PVOD in early February, and then finally debuted for sale on distributors like Kaleidescape on March 9.
I’ll be honest, I knew nothing of the Paulette Jiles novel the film is based on, short of my wife saying that she had started reading it and just couldn’t get into it. And if that wasn’t a ringing enough endorsement, it wasn’t like the film’s trailer was so compelling I felt I needed to rush out and watch. For me, Hanks’ track record of picking great films was the hook, and if the trailer or synopsis wasn’t enough to grab your attention, then you’re missing out on an enjoyable and beautiful-looking
The plot is pretty simple: Captain Kidd (Hanks), a former member of the Confederate Army, now makes his living traveling around small towns in Texas reading excerpts from various newspapers to gatherings of folks for ten cents a head. While heading to his next town, he stumbles across an abandoned young girl (Helena Zengel)—dressed in Native American clothing and who doesn’t speak any English—whom we eventually learn is named Johann. Kidd is told to take the girl to a Union checkpoint, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs representative is unavailable for months. This is essentially the first ten minutes of the film, with the remainder following Kidd as he travels to return Johanna to her surviving family.
Parts of the film reminded me a bit of Castaway, where
NEWS AT A GLANCE
A satisfying tale set in the Wild West, fueled by terrific performances from the two leads and by absolutely fantastic-looking scenery and cinematography.
The visuals are so sharp and stunning they can almost pull you out of the time period of this film.
While you do get some surround, the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix is very front-focused.
Hanks is mostly alone, save for Johanna who either doesn’t speak at all or speaks in non-subtitled Kiowa, with Hanks giving bits of exposition as he tries to interact with her. He is able to say much about the weight of burden, duty, and purpose with face, eyes, and pensive/troubled expressions. Interaction happens with others as the pair rolls on from one dusty, clapboard-fabricated small town to the next, discovering a variety of characters along the way, not all of whom are good.
The film is a definitely slow burn, a bit like Let Him Go. We see it building and edging towards the eventuality of Kidd reuniting Johanna with her family, but witness their growing relationship and her reliance on him along the way, with the unknown
perils of what they’ll face on their journey or find on arrival. In my review notes, I wrote, “The movie is slow but compelling, with enough bumps of action and drama along the way to keep it gently moving forward, like soft gusts of wind that steadily keep a tumbleweed moving along.”
Writer/director Paul Greengrass is best known for his action films in the Jason Bourne series as well as bringing true accounts to the screen such as 22 July, United 93, and Captain Phillips, where he previously worked with Hanks. But instead of trying to force action here, Greengrass seems content to pull back and let us watch the story
unfold, with the Wild West having enough hard challenges and unscrupulous people all on its own. Even the gunfights are a bit reluctant, with Kidd looking to avoid and escape trouble rather than embrace it.
One of the real treats here is Zengel, who was only 11 when the film was shot and who does a terrific job portraying twice-orphaned Johanna—a girl completely lost and alone in this strange world that seems to keep abandoning her. Zengel easily holds her own with Hanks, and is incredibly expressive and intense well beyond her years. What we have here is two great actors at different ends of their careers, and you can’t help but think we’ll be seeing a lot of Zengel going forward. She has already been recognized with four female supporting-actor nominations for her work here, including the Critic’s Choice, Golden Globes, and Screen Actos Guild. (The Academy Awards nominations have yet to be announced as I write this, but I’d be shocked if she doesn’t earn an Oscar nom as well!)
Shot on Arri cameras at 4.5K resolution, News is taken from a 4K digital intermediate and, oh boy, does it look it! I know we’ve written here about a film not being sourced from a 4K DI not being a deal killer to absolute resolution and looking good, but images here are crisp, detailed, and razor sharp. In fact, almost too much so, as the stunning visuals can almost pull you out of the time period of this film, which takes place in 1870 after the end of the Civil War. Images are clean throughout, but when the camera snaps into focus it’s like everything just goes Pop! You can clearly see single strands of Johanna’s hair or Kidd’s beard, or the thick, heavy texture of fabrics in hats, jackets, vests, and shirts. One encounter takes place on a rocky mountain, and you can see every stone and rock in sharp-edged detail, with every little crag and crack visible, including pebbles and bits of lichen.
The 2.4 aspect ratio is terrific for appreciating the huge, wide vistas of a Texas landscape that seems to just go on forever. The color palette is mostly dry, dusty earth tones, with an ever-present powder-blue sky, and home theater owners with a projector and scope screen are certainly in for a treat.
There are basically two times in the film: Day and night. Daytime scenes are bright enough, with the sun gleaming hard enough to occasionally make you squint, but reveal the incredible detail in the images. Night scenes—including those shot in darkly lit interiors—feel like they are lit mostly by available light and have deep and rich shadow detail doubtless helped by the HDR grading. Some scenes are lit by lamplight or candles or fire light, and the graduation to deep shadow at the edges of the shots has a very realistic quality.
Even though the film had a theatrical Dolby Atmos mix, we are “limited” to a 5.1-channel DTS HD-Master Audio soundtrack with the Kaleidescape download. While I have disagreed with fellow reviewer Dennis Burger in the past about Dolby Atmos (I being a huge fan and Dennis finding it occasionally distracting), the sound mix in News actually made me concede his point a bit.
The audio mix is very front-focused, with most of the presentation taking place across the front three channels. We do get some surround—such as when we are surrounded by hundreds of cattle milling about, or bits of rain pattering down outside a building where Kidd is doing a reading, or some outdoor ambience in
the form of bugs, wind, and distant coyotes—but primarily the mix is spread across the front three channels. What this does is keep all of your attention focused ahead and up on the screen—or straight-ahead as Kidd is fond of saying. There were parts where the height speakers could have been employed to position people scurrying about overhead, or perhaps howling coyotes or rustling winds far off in the surrounds in the distance, but this ultimately would have pulled you away from the action on screen.
There are some moments where the soundtrack kicks it up a notch, such as during a particularly heavy downpour, the heavy murmurs and oohs-and-aahs of a crowd during Kidd’s reading, or a severe dust storm. And when there are gunshots, they are loud and dynamic, with bullets whizzing and zipping across the front, splintering wood or ricocheting. The front-focused mix also gives you a chance to appreciate James Newton Howard’s score, which has a perfect, timeless western feel to it.
News of the World is a satisfying tale set in the Wild West that keeps your interest over its near-two-hour runtime, fueled by some terrific performances by the two leads, and absolutely fantastic-looking scenery and cinematography. While it might not be a film you’ll return to over and over, you’ll likely regret not seeing it at least once.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.