‘News of the World’: Hanks and his young co-star deliver a soulful western

“News of the World” – Three years ago, Tom Hanks starred as a newsman, and one of the 20th century’s most prominent, “The Washington Post” Executive Editor Ben Bradlee in “The Post”, a film about the publication’s attempt to publish the Pentagon Papers.

In “News of the World”, Hanks plays another character tied to the Fourth Estate, although he’s worlds – and a century – apart from Mr. Bradlee.

As the movie opens, Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) greets an eager Wichita Falls, Texas audience in 1870 by saying, “I’m here tonight to bring you all the news from this great world of ours.”

He travels all over the Lone Star State and reads from newspapers to enthusiastic crowds who are itching to listen to “all the news that’s fit to print.”   Since paperboys are not declaring “Extra!  Extra!  Read all about it!” on every other corner in Red River, Castroville, or Wichita Falls, our good captain delivers a vital service to these communities.  He also holds a talent for theatrical flair.  For instance, this storyteller will dramatically proclaim that a group of miners escaped a fire, a meningitis outbreak arrested several victims, or offer a moment of levity and explain that a man mistakenly-presumed dead comes back to life.  (Geez, that doesn’t actually sound funny, but trust me, Captain Kidd has the gift of gab.)

He’s a moral, respectable man, but his companion is loneliness, and they are well-acquainted.  The captain’s demons run deep, and director Paul Greengrass – who teamed up with Hanks in the compelling big-budget thriller “Captain Phillips” (2013) – asks his actor to reach into soulful, dark places.

Hanks unquestionably answers the call, and the audience will repeatedly witness that Kidd is a better human being than his surrounding environment, one frequented by unhealthy, overwhelming doses of Darwinism.  Poverty, racism, gunplay, and off-screen slaughter between whites, blacks, and natives are the begrudgingly accepted norms.  The world is a cruel, hard place, and learning to survive in it becomes the first, second, and third instincts for everyone, even those with altruistic intentions.

Still, there’s room for good deeds.

Through pure happenstance, Kidd – while traveling on his typical rural route – meets Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel).  This (roughly) 10-year-old German orphan lived with a Kiowa tribe for six years, but U.S. soldiers slaughtered her Native American family, and through a random bureaucratic judgment and some soul searching, this orator – without speaking as to why – chaperons Johanna to her aunt and uncle’s home in Castroville.

“News of the World” isn’t particularly tied to the newspaper biz.  It’s simply a vehicle to place Hanks in a road picture, but if there’s someone who can breathe genuine, gentle humanity into a 1-hour 59-minute on-screen isolated journey across desolate, barren terrain, he is your man.  (see also “Cast Away” (2000))

Since Johanna no longer recalls her German language, straightforward discourse is problematic between this former Texas Third Infantryman beaten down by life and a little girl ripped apart from not one but two families.  They both possess varying degrees of emotional toll, which broaden their already-massive pragmatic gulf, but the two also sit side-by-side for a weeks-long trek.

Greengrass gives his characters the emotional space to hopefully connect.

Due to the linguistic barrier, Jefferson Kyle Kidd does most of the talking because Johanna fortified a genuine stance on silence, one built on a rightful distrust towards Caucasian men.  She occasionally converses through some Kiowa vocab, as Zengel masterfully carries Johanna’s painful history and some encouraging steps towards trust.  It’s a heck of a convincing performance, and quite frankly, it’s difficult to say if the film would work without Hanks’ inclusion or Zengel’s shining turn.  The only other recognizable star is Bill Camp (who is great in everything, by the way) in a minor appearance.  Otherwise, Hanks and Zengel are on their own for long stretches of open, exceedingly brown Texas buttes and plains.

The crew filmed in New Mexico, but no matter the U.S. state, the terrain looks and feels like the bleak Eastern Oregon desert in “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010).  If you’ve experienced director Kelly Reichardt’s unsettling picture, you’re hoping that the good captain and new passenger keep moving forward and avoid harm’s way.  Of course, various southwestern dangers hunt them down, as the savage human condition matches the unforgiving great outdoors.

Although anyone would be within their right to call “Road to Perdition” (2002) and “Catch Me If You Can” (2002) modern-day westerns, “News of the World” is Hanks’ first role in an actual one.  It suits him too, as this A-list Hollywood legend and child actress are awfully endearing in a timeless movie about a connection between a pair of semi-broken souls, and here’s some expected news:  bring some tissues.

⭐⭐⭐  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits: Universal Pictures

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