In Paul Greengrass’ Western, Tom Hanks Sends the ‘News of the World’ and an Orphaned Girl on Their Way

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News of the World (CREDIT: Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Covino, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Camp

Director: Paul Greengrass

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Particularly Tense Shootout and a Few Other Occasional Bursts of Western Meanness

Release Date: December 25, 2020

The title of Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks’ latest collaboration might lead you to believe that America’s Dad is finally getting his Frank Sinatra on. And while he does indeed start spreading those titular news, the focus is much more squarely on his journey with a young girl in a sort of gentler spin on The Searchers. Both elements of the story are about the importance and difficulty of communication. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kidd, a widowed Civil War veteran who traverses the Texas frontier to tell tales of recent events of notes to whomever is willing to listen to them. During his journeys, he encounters 10-year-old Johanna (Helena Zengel), who’s been raised by the Kiowa tribe ever since they killed her German immigrant parents. She fancies herself a Kiowa now, so when the family she’s been living with is also killed, she becomes an orphan twice over. She then winds up in the captain’s care as he attempts to deliver her to her aunt and uncle, which is not a plan she’s exactly a fan of.

News of the World demonstrates the value of an unexpected title. There are only a handful of scenes of Captain Kidd delivering those news, so I don’t think I would have considered them very deeply if the title hadn’t primed me to. In a setting with rudimentary mass communication, these stories are orphans that find themselves in as precarious a position as Johanna. There is no guarantee that the ears they fall on will even accept them. They benefit immensely from a patient medium like Captain Kidd. Both the news of the world and Johanna require love and support in getting from where they are to where they need to be going. I wasn’t expecting the philosophy of Marshall McLuhan to be so starkly clear in the latest Greengrass film, but in this case, the medium absolutely is the message.

News of the World is Recommended If You Like: A kind and gentle (but not that gentle) approach to Westerns, Clutch supporting turns from Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Wagons

Mark Ruffalo Relentlessly Wades Through Some ‘Dark Waters’ to Expose the Soullessness of the Energy Industry

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CREDIT: Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, Bill Pullman, William Jackson Harper, Louis Krause

Director: Todd Haynes

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Effects of Chemical Poisoning

Release Date: November 22, 2019 (Limited)

The “little man takes on a big bad corporation” biopic subgenre is a resilient go-to for anyone in the mood for making muckraking and/or inspirational cinema. It’s also in turn a ripe target for parody, which might make some potential viewers skeptical about the filmmaking merits of something like Dark Waters in 2019. But those concerns should not be the biggest deal in the world when this movie is sending us the message that a company has released poison that is probably present in every currently alive being on the planet. And we can trust that this message will be delivered with conviction and persistence, as the main character is played by Mark Ruffalo, who embodies that sort of relentless energy both in his personal life and onscreen (especially in 2015’s Spotlight). So while some of the speechifying may be a little overwrought, it’s nice to be reminded that we all ought to treat our fellow human beings with dignity instead of following the demands of the almighty dollar.

The crux of the story turns on just that sort of crisis of conscience. Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) is an attorney who has just made partner at a Cincinnati law firm that specializes in representing companies in the energy industry. One of their clients is DuPont, and as Rob’s story gets started, he thinks he’s just helping DuPont assuage the concerns of a West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp) whose livestock has been dying off en masse in nasty fashion and believes that the chemical company is to blame. Instead, Rob discovers a systematic cover-up that has been killing off not just animals but almost an entire segment of human society. It takes a couple of decades to set things aright, and as we see, that is a profound burden for any one person to take on.

Rob’s wife Sarah is played by Anne Hathaway, and accordingly, I found myself wondering if Dark Waters is one of those movies in which a thoroughly qualified actress is relegated to just “The Wife.” I do wish that she had more to do, but not in the same way that I’m bothered when a titan of industry or a lunar explorer neglects his family. Rather, I wish that Rob would unburden himself and let the people in his life help him out a bit (Sarah is also an attorney after all, though we meet her as a stay-at-home mom). This film’s most pertinent storytelling technique is how it portrays the stress of singularly fighting a mammoth opponent. Rob develops a hand tremor that looks like it might be a symptom of Parkinson’s disease. It isn’t quite that serious, but it does convey the alarming possibilities of not allowing yourself to be supported. Let’s look out for each other, so that the Rob Bilotts of the world don’t have to pick up all the slack and nearly kill themselves in the process.

Dark Waters is Recommended If You Like: Conviction (2010), Spotlight, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Fluorocarbons