In 2013 Paul Greengrass collaborated with Tom Hanks in the making of “Captain Phillips”, a suspenseful biopic centered on the taking of a ship by somali pirates. The movie ended up with 6 Oscar nominations including a deserving Best Performance in a Leading Role nomination for Tom Hanks. 7 years later this dynamic duo teams up once again. They have left international waters and traveled to the North American landscape of 1870’s for a journey that is not here to innovate on how storytelling works, it’s here to use its traditional resources very effectively to entertain and perhaps inspire the Netflix audience.
The narrative follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), an old confederate officer that now earns a living by travelling from town to town reading the news to the townsfolk. He encounters on the road a lost orphan child that does not speak english and because of the systemic circumstances of the time, Kidd (as a noble man) decides that the best course of action is to escort her himself. As we might expect from a modern movie that successfully evokes an old western format, the plot does not get very complex at any point in the story. This superficial simplicity presented the screenplay ends up being a huge positive for the movie in general.
The narrative drives the captain and his companion Johanna to overcome several obstacles in order to achieve their goal. Each separate scenario avoids any sense of repetition by presenting a realistic amount of variety with new antagonists with different motivations. It is notable that every one of these fiends stand out, leaving a lasting impression on the audience till after the credits roll. Just as well as the villains offer a constant source of dread and entertainment, the different solutions that Kidd and Johanna find along the way are refreshingly different for each situation providing a bunch of exciting and emotional resolutions. Woven within these isolated skirmishes the film shows a constant growth of the relationship between the two main characters with a genuine developing arc for each of them that feels earned and heartwarming.
The fact that a simple screenplay is so emotionally effective and is supported by all around great performances has to do with the remarkable directing Paul Greengrass brings to the project. Even though the movie starts off as traditional and plain; once the first tense action sequence starts Greengrass takes the wheel and the direction choices become evident. He maintains tension with no big explosions or outstanding set pieces, but with precise dialog, great acting, fast camera work and tight editing delivering a 20 minute sequence that does not let up for a single second. His versatility to go from quiet introspective interactions to dangerous situations with a cohesive structure is admirable. However, even though every encounter is fun and important to the overall plot the predictability of it all can sometimes feel a bit disappointing.
Lastly, the third main character (in my opinion) must be addressed; the news. As sentimental as it may be for the filmmakers and communicators that work daily with this sort of content; I believe the message is handled in a way that will appeal to every spectator that owns a cell phone nowadays. Captain Kidd’s job is used as a very effective emotional anchor throughout the entire film; one that reflects on the power of words and communication. If we can step aside from the western genre we will be able to see Kidd was a communicator, and a great one at that. We can contemplate how the choices he makes before and while reading news to people affect them profoundly. How he puts his time and effort in service of what he believes to be right and finally how he understands the value of honest and positive communication. In the end, Greengrass and Hanks brought us an unexpected and delightful western of an influencer that was damn good at his job.