Set five years after the conclusion of the Civil War, News of the World (based on the Paulette Jiles novel) tracks the very particular journey of Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (a grizzled Tom Hanks) as he makes his way from small Texas town to small Texas town with a stack of newspapers from all over the nation. When he arrives, he sets up in a tent or small room and proceeds to read to the townspeople a sampling of headlines and news stories from around the country. Like any good newsman, he blends the politics and more serious items with humorous human interest pieces, giving the largely illiterate crowds a sense of what it’s like to go through a newspaper cover to cover. And since it’s Hanks doing the reading, he adds a dramatic flare for his enraptured audience that includes us as well. It’s not a job that earns him a lot of money, but each person listening pays his or her dime, and it gives Kidd enough to make it to the next town.
On the move between towns, Kidd stumbles upon the aftermath of some sort of attack or accident that has left a 10-year-old girl behind. Not speaking any English, the girl has a note with her identifying her as Johanna (newcomer Helena Zengel), the daughter of German immigrants who were attacked by the local Kiowa people six years earlier as they journeyed across the plains of Texas. Only the girl was left alive, so the Kiowa took her in and raised her as one of their own. She was on her way to be returned to her aunt and uncle hundreds of miles away, and Kidd vows to escort her either to local authorities or perhaps even all the way to her only living family members.
The rest of News of the World is the story of their long trip together, through unforgiving terrain, unexpected weather and decidedly human dangers. The trail is long, but it gives them time to learn bits of each other’s language, enough to communicate, and the two form a protective bond that helps them get through the countless challenges of the road. Being certain to avoid most conventional forms of sentimentality along the way, director/co-writer Paul Greengrass (who worked previously with Hanks on Captain Phillips) does a remarkable and touching job making certain nothing comes easy to this unlikely pair. There are multiple attempts by no-gooders to steal Johanna away from him—one particularly nasty sequence involves a three-man gang (led by Michael Angelo Covino, who is one of the filmmakers and stars of the current release The Climb)––but Kidd and Johanna use their broken languages and intelligence to win the day most times.
There are a handful of solid supporting performances that pop up unexpectedly throughout, including from the likes of Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Bill Camp, and Christopher Hagen as Old Man Durand, who runs a town of workers who aren’t quite ready to admit the war between the states is over. It’s one of the film’s rare moments of overt commentary about the state of politics today, as Durand spins tales to his town’s residents about his history and the history of the town that are fictitious, wanting Kidd to only read news stories about him. But when Kidd gets before the eager crowd, he has something different in mind, encouraging free thought and resisting Durand’s version of fake news.
It’s clear that News of the World is also about finding one’s way home, an idea that many of us are struggling to do right now. Is home for Johanna a beatdown farm where her relatives have no idea what to do with her? Kidd is also desperate to create a home for himself after he lost his version of it during the war, so letting someone like Johanna into his life is more difficult than one might suspect. And while the conclusion of the movie isn’t that difficult to predict, that doesn’t take away from its highly emotional and deeply satisfying conclusion. A filmmaker has to make a real effort to botch a Tom Hanks movie, and thankfully Greengrass knows his material and his lead actor well enough to make News of the World something special.
News of the World opens in theaters (where theaters are open) on Friday, December 25.
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