Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks and Oscar-nominated director Paul Greengrass have teamed up again for Universal’s Western “News of the World,” one of the biggest studio films in the awards race. The duo last worked together in 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” which ended up with a best picture nomination.
Like an all-American game of baseball, “News of the World” is a straight-down-the-middle film that checks many of the boxes of classic Hollywood pictures that used to be very popular within the industry. To successfully impact the Oscars, you must also reach the newest Academy members, who are younger and hungry for new and dynamic content. If it succeeds in rallying the support of older members, the film will plant itself in the middle of the Oscar race.
“News of the World” tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, back to her aunt and uncle against her will.
A role like Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is something Tom Hanks can do in his sleep. It doesn’t demand much of him as an actor. After finally scoring a nomination for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” in supporting actor last year after a 19-year hiatus, he may have difficulty cracking a best actor lineup that is very competitive this year.
Newcomer Helena Zengel, as Johanna Leonberger, delivers an impressive debut. With a potentially thin supporting actress race, the 12-year-old German actress could find difficulty navigating around larger names like Olivia Colman and Ellen Burstyn. In her favor is a precedent set by Hailee Steinfeld, who managed to find love for 2010’s “True Grit,” although she represented one of the worst category fraud cases in years. There aren’t any other acting contenders to consider, although the high point of the film is anchored brilliantly by Michael Angelo Covino in a sleazy, villainous turn, which highlights what we saw with “The Climb” earlier this year, which he starred in, directed and co-wrote.
Westerns used to be an Oscar-friendly genre, with 25 films being nominated for best picture over the 92-year history. Four films have walked away with the top prize: “Cimarron” (1930), “Dances with Wolves” (1990), “Unforgiven” (1992) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007). The genre has evolved with bolder stylistic choices in “Django Unchained” (2012), “The Revenant” (2015) and “Hell or High Water,” which were still able to make headway in the awards race.
Greengrass always assembles a technically proficient team and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is the standout. Criminally, he’s never been nominated for an Academy Award despite having “Dark City,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” and “The Martian” on his resume, so the veteran may be in his best position for awards recognition.
Greengrass also serves as a co-writer, with the Oscar-nominated Luke Davies (“Lion”). The adapted race is full of stage adaptations, so “News of the World” provides a contrast, with a story based on the 2016 novel that might speaks to writers with its mood and character-driven tale.
Composer James Newton Howard is the second most likely candidate to find awards traction in the artisan races. Another overdue craftsperson, who has netted eight nominations in his career but zero statuettes, his work on the film is some of his most exciting. Always with a sense of how to define a scene with brilliant tension, even if it’s considered “divisive” (“The Village”) or simply comedic (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), he knows how to elevate the material. It could be something that puts him in the running for his first Oscar.
Oscar-winning editor William Goldenberg (“Argo”) has done extraordinary work over his career, which has resulted in five career nominations. He could add one more to his resume if the film catches on with guilds and voters. We could also see it pop up in spots like production design (from David Crank and set designer Elizabeth Keenan) and the sound team, which provides an aural transport to the period. We should also never count out costume designer Mark Bridges, who has won two Oscars in the last eight years (“The Artist” and “Phantom Thread”) and is fresh off his magnificent threads on Todd Phillips’ “Joker.”
“News of the World” is the type of wild card that could garner anywhere from one to nine nominations on Oscar nomination morning. It’s all about the overall response, but what this year there could be a yearning in the industry to support studio films that are being drowned out by streaming platforms. After the sale of international rights to Netflix, Universal strongly believes in its chances on the awards circuit and wants to show the world how it can go toe-to-toe with the streamers.
“News of the World” is scheduled to open in theaters on Dec. 25.