In 1870 Wichita Falls, Texas, it’s Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) who stumbles upon an abandoned and flipped over wagon in the middle of the road. Cowered in the nearby bushes is Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) — who hardly knows that name though, since she’s lived with the Kiowa tribe for most of her life after her parents’ settlement was raided by the tribe. Now ten years old, she goes Cicada and speaks only the language of the now-dead people who kidnapped and then raised her. “Orphaned twice over,” the lone survivor of two massacres, she has biological relatives that she’s never met, but they live nearly four-hundred miles away. So, Kidd takes it upon himself to escort her on the treacherous journey. His motivations behind it seem rather simple, as it’s the right thing to do. Or you could say it’s because he’s a Tom Hanks character — which is to say, he’s a model of integrity.
Captain Kidd is also a regular when it comes to travel, as his profession involves him riding town to town, reading newspapers aloud to a crowd of interested citizens. Five years out from the Civil War, Kidd carries the weight of a fractured nation on his shoulders. Though he fought for the Confederacy, he seems to harbor no prejudices or resentments. Early into the film, he’s reciting President Grant’s conditions for the Southern states to renter the Union, and as the crowd becomes unruly, Kidd delivers an impassioned but plainspoken case for peace and unity. It’s as earnest as it sounds, but Hanks sells it well enough.
There’s no missing the parallels News of the World is looking to draw between the current national divisions, and the film tackles it through the vein of being a throwback to a bygone era of Hollywood hitmaking: a Western odyssey that’s rather out of vogue in today’s cinematic landscape. The film also marks a reunion between Hanks and Paul Greengrass, who previously directed one of Hanks’ sturdiest, most moving performances in Captain Phillips. Greengrass is a filmmaker who generally specializes in you-are-there docudramas that usually immerse and thrust audiences into the present tense of recent tragedies and crises. That makes News of the World a major change of pace for him, not only because he goes back further into history but also because he slows down and widens his views; it’s only the unsteady handheld camerawork that feels like a blatant fingerprint that Greengrass has put onto his source material, which is adapted from Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same title.
The entire voyage is structured episodically. For all the purported danger of the trip, Kidd and his young traveler only actually stumble into one full-blown gunfight: a tense standoff with a leering, lewd war veteran (Michael Angelo Covino) on a jagged slope of rocks. Elsewhere, Kidd attempts to awaken the working-class outrage of a town firmly under the thumb of a self-proclaimed “king” (Thomas Francis Murphy) — an honorable if slightly reckless act, given how much it puts both of their lives in danger. The heart of the film is the growing bond between the two, as they teach each other words in their respective tongues and commiserating, often wordlessly, about their collective trauma. It’s an engaging dynamic, even as the film takes shortcuts in their ease of communication.
In some regard, News of the World is yet another riff on The Searchers, another Texas tale of an abducted girl who’s accepted her new place in the tribe and the Civil War veteran determined to get her “home.” (Greengrass even goes so far as recreating that classic’s most iconic shot.) But Kidd doesn’t have any of the thick racism of Ethan Edwards; even his reluctance to call her by her Kiowa name feels more sensible than anything else — an acknowledgment that her new family won’t accept it. Like a lot of modern/revisionist Westerns, News of the World resists demonizing its Native American characters yet still puts them into exoticized archetypes: They appear as either stoic, silent silhouettes passing through the fog of a riverbank or a cavalry emerging from a sandstorm to give our travelers a lifeline.
Through it all, News of the World lives and dies on the presence of the Hanks of it all (with Zengel holding her own). It’s probably the most old-fashioned thing about it: It’s a true star vehicle, practically a tribute to his enduring appeal. Yet for as comforting as Hanks is in the role, and for as much as he sells the poignancy of the film’s bittersweet final stretch, the film can still feel almost too built around his characteristically goodness to ever gain much in the way of actual drama. “I guess we both have demons to face,” Kidd bluntly tells Johanna, to which one might wonder, what demons? There’s never any sense that he might do anything other than the most virtuous thing, that the horrors he’s experienced on the battlefield (only ever hinted at) have created any darkness inside of him. They say war crushes the soul, but in Kidd’s case, it actually seems to have made him reasonable and empathetic and morally upstanding, essentially a classic Tom Hanks idealist. Maybe there’s a reason this most traditional of American movie stars has never, until now, dabbled in the most American of movie genres: He’s just too pure for that world. Entirely a performance movie, News of the World can border on being listless, yet its knowing leads guide it steadily.
News of the World is currently playing in Theaters nationwide