Note: The writer of this review watched News Of The World on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
It’s 1870, near Wichita Falls, Texas. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) stumbles upon a wagon in the road, overturned and abandoned. Cowering within is Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel)—or that’s what she was called six years earlier, a lifetime ago for a child, when she was taken by the Kiowa tribe that raided her parents’ settlement. Now 10, this blond urchin goes by 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—an aunt and uncle she’s never met—but they live 400 miles south, in a community of German immigrants.
It’s Kidd who agrees to escort the girl on this long, dangerous voyage. “Captain, why are you doing this?” someone asks him at the onset of the expedition. The short answer is that it’s the right thing to do, and he’s a Tom Hanks character—which is to typically say, a paradigm of integrity. Kidd has an unusual profession: He goes town to town, reading newspapers aloud to an assembly of interested citizens, like a proto, itinerant Tom Brokaw. Five years out from the war that pitted brother against brother, 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 reenter the Union, and as the crowd becomes unruly—“don’t shoot the messenger” would be an all too literal request in this case—Kidd delivers an impassioned but plainspoken case for peace and unity. Hanks may be the only actor who could sell such a speech in 2020. He makes it sound sensible and right, not like certain hollow contemporary pleas to try and “understand the other side.”
Can America’s dad find a common ground between the “two Americas,” all while restoring respect for a free press? There’s no missing the parallels News Of The World hopes to draw between the divided country it depicts and the one it’s being released into. All the same, this is very much a throwback to a bygone era of Hollywood hitmaking: a Western odyssey even more out of vogue than this Christmas’ other unfashionable Hollywood drama about a movie star and a little girl crossing an inhospitable terrain. (For further retro flavor, it’s opening in movie theaters. Remember those?)
The film reunites Hanks with Paul Greengrass, who directed him to one of his sturdiest, most moving performances in Captain Phillips. (The penultimate scene of that movie, in which the star offers a remarkably convincing expression of post-traumatic shock, may be the best acting of his career.) Greengrass generally specializes in urgently immersive docudramas, thrusting audiences into the queasy present tense of recent tragedies and crises. That makes News Of The World a major change of pace for him—and not just because it reaches much further back into history. In tackling an old-fashioned oater, Greengrass slows down and widens his view; the occasionally unsteady bob of a handheld camera is the only blatantly discernible fingerprint he puts on the material, pulled from the 2016 bestseller of the same name by Paulette Jiles.
The structure is episodic. For all the purported danger of the trip, Kidd and his young ward only stumble into one full-blown gunfight: a tense standoff with a leering, lecherous war veteran (Michael Angelo Covino, the writer, director, and star of The Climb) on a jagged slope of rocks. Elsewhere, Kidd impulsively awakens 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 risks both his life and that of the child he’s sworn to protect. The film’s center is the growing bond between man and girl, teaching each other words in their respective tongues and commiserating, often without words at all, about their collective post-war trauma. It’s an engaging dynamic (Zengel, a German actor, develops a natural chemistry with her famous costar), though the film takes shortcuts in their ease of communication.
This is, in some respects, an umpteenth 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 can’t resist briefly quoting that classic’s most iconic shot.) But Kidd has none of the curdled racism of Ethan Edwards; even his reluctance to call his young charge by her Kiowa name feels more pragmatic than anything else—an acknowledgment that her new family won’t accept it. Like a lot of modern Westerns, News Of The World resists demonizing its Native American characters but still mythically exoticizes them: They appear as silent silhouettes passing through the fog of a riverbank or a cavalry emerging from a sandstorm to throw the weary travelers an unprompted lifeline. Meanwhile, if Kidd’s guilt about the war extends to its cause, that remains only implied; in so much as he seems anachronistic—the enlightened Confederate—it’s more in that sympathetic, default decency the actor confers than in the worldview Kidd expresses.
Ultimately, News Of The World lives and dies on the presence of its iconic headliner, on the Hanks of it all. That’s 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 feels almost too built around his signature nobility 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 (alluded to but never discussed in detail) have created any darkness inside of him. They say war is corrosive to the soul, but in Kidd’s case, it seems to have made him reasonable and empathetic and morally upstanding, a.k.a. a classic Tom Hanks do-gooder. Maybe there’s a reason this most traditional of American movie stars has never, before now, dabbled in the most intrinsically American of movie genres: He’s too pure for that world.