If anyone can save an orphaned girl from the big bad world, it’s Tom Hanks. In one of the richest roles of his career, the two-time Oscar winner plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd in “News of the World,” which Universal Studio is releasing on Christmas. The film, directed by Oscar nominee (“United 93”) and “Bourne” franchise mastermind Paul Greengrass, will likely emerge as a major Oscar contender in lots of categories over the next few weeks.
The source material, a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, is peerless. Nominated for a National Book Award, “News” offers many selling points that appeal to awards voters. First, it is a two-hander. From “The Miracle Worker” to “Midnight Cowboy,” Oscar rewards films where the interaction between two usually mismatched characters significantly alters each life by the end of the film. “News of the World” takes viewers on a 400-mile journey as the widowed Civil War veteran attempts to return Johanna Leonberger (newcomer Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old white girl kidnapped by the Kiowa and raised as a Native American, to her family, German immigrants who need help working their farm. Kidd has to win the child’s trust, teach her English and protect her from herself and others. He is out of his league, but rises to the occasion.
Second, “News” has gravitas, exploring the buzzy theme of cultural alienation, but doing so in an unusual setting. Is Johanna better off in her adopted culture or in the one the White world thinks she legally belongs in? As viewers will see, there is no easy answer.
Third, “News” is a Western, the most American of film genres. Westerns such as “Dances With Wolves” and “Unforgiven” muscled their way to Best Picture in 1992 and 1993 respectively. As Kidd and Johanna unexpectedly bond in a harsh world, Academy members may fall head-over-heels for them.
Gold Derby experts currently rank “News of the World” in ninth place with 20-to-1 odds to win a Best Picture nomination. Star Hanks, who was nominated in 2019 as Best Supporting Actor for playing Fred Rogers in “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” is looking to pick up his seventh nomination, his sixth as Best Actor, and Derby-ites give him 28-to-1 odds in a category that includes fellow previous winners Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) and Gary Oldman (“Mank”). Greengrass, who directed Hanks in “Captain Phillips,” fares slightly better. He’s in sixth place, with 22-to-1 odds. The film is also well placed among Best Adapted Screenplay contenders, with 13-to-1 odds and a fifth place showing. Robust box office and critical reception will boost the odds of all of these contenders.
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