‘News of the World’ is a serious Best Picture Oscars threat hiding in plain sight

Much has already been made about the strangeness of this Oscars season, with theaters in many areas shuttered and the coronavirus pandemic forcing the academy to embrace streaming platforms in a way previously unimaginable. So wouldn’t the biggest twist of all before the April ceremony be a serious Best Picture push from the lone major studio theatrical release in the race?

It’s possible thanks to Universal’s “News of the World,” director Paul Greengrass’s post-Civil War Western starring Tom Hanks and newcomer Helena Zengel. Released in theaters on Christmas Day, the drama has already been described as a “throwback” or “dad movie”but such reductive language does the film a disservice and ignores its timely message. While embracing the wel-worn tropes of the Western genre, Greengrass uses “News of the World” to address modern issues like the spread of misinformation, the way demagogues stoke fear among their subjects, and the loss of a shared national reality. Even better for many voters likely feeling the weight of the last year, he ends the story on an uplifting note that there’s hope for the future.

It’s heady stuff for a movie Hanks himself has somewhat fittingly compared to “The Mandalorian” without the lightsabers. But following a year dominated by headlines about the coronavirus, the contentious presidential election, and the pervasive spread of falsehoods from prominent political leaders, it’s hard to imagine a better time for “News of the World” to enter the race.

SEE 2021 Oscar Predictions: Best Picture [Updated January 4]

“What does the road to healing look like? I wanted to make a film on those themes, healing, and redemption,” Greengrass told Deadline about his film, which is based on the 2016 best-selling novel of the same name. “I loved the book and it seemed to speak to today. Doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum or what you believe, I think everybody feels a sense of troubling division and disunity. We feel it in our country and I’m sure you feel it in yours. It’s a sense of crisis, uncertain tides, waters going in all directions. How do we heal and unite toward a sense of belonging?”

That question hangs over “News of the World.” In it, Hanks plays a former Confederate Army captain who now travels the post-war South reading the nation’s top headlines to a disillusioned and fractured audience. During one of his journeys, he encounters a young German girl (Zengel), who was taken by a Native American tribe as a child and raised as a member of its people. The unlikely pair’s trek across the heartland to return the youngster to her only living relatives makes up the bulk of the film, with Hanks giving his most emotional performance since the last scene of Greengrass’s “Captain Phillips” and perhaps his best overall work since “Bridge of Spies.” (Despite that, Hanks remains surprisingly on the outside of the Best Actor race. Among Gold Derby Experts, only Variety’s Jazz Tangcay has the six-time nominee grabbing a seventh nomination — which would be his first Best Actor nomination since “Cast Away.”) With a deft hand, Greengrass navigates the action and sentimentality with equal grace and never produces a false note of emotion or empathy. Half of the two dozen Experts foresee the helmer reaping a bid in the Best Director category, which would be his second nomination after “United 93.” 

That isn’t to say the road traveled to a Best Picture win will be easy. While 15 of 24 Experts on Gold Derby have “News of the World” landing among the nominees, only two prognosticators are currently predicting a victory: Gold Derby’s own Tom O’Neill and Gold Derby contributor Thelma Adams. By most accounts, “News of the World” is in a contenders tier just below expected front-runners “Nomadland,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and “Mank.”

But it’s easy to imagine that changing as buzz for “News of the World” continues to grow and audiences are able to experience its uplifting message about the potential to heal old wounds, a feel-good salve that is likely to resonate with audiences exhausted from the last 12 months and four years.

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