What sounds like another movie about journalism is actually just another familiar arty western framed by the familiar theme of a road trip shared by the unlikely pairing of cranky old man and needy, pubescent girl who learn to trust in time for a happy ending. Because the abused and hopeless child is a lost German girl who has been captured by Kiowa Indians, and the rusty old codger is Tom Hanks, the story of News of the World works in spite of its cozy predictability, and it’s easy to like before the end credits roll.
Set in the dreariest end of the Texas Panhandle after the Civil War, the story centers on a despondent survivor named Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), who travels the West from town to town to read the news of the day to people with no access to newspapers, spreading the word about every topic from meningitis epidemics to the anti-slavery plans of President Ulysses S. Grant.
After encountering the girl he calls Johanna (played with vivid but understated realism by newcomer Helena Zengel) he finds new purpose in an otherwise empty existence and assumes the task of getting her safely home to what’s left of her immigrant family. Slowly he learns that they’ve been massacred by Indians and she has no place to go. Reluctantly, he risks his own life, forces himself to protect her from flesh merchants and rapists, teaches her how to eat chili with something other than her bare hands and to trust a stranger who only wants to get her to some kind of safety.
NEWS OF THE WORLD ★★★
The movie is mostly a chronicle of hardships, danger, pain and bloodshed on the trail, replete with buffalo herds, a sandstorm, death lurking behind every rock, and a fight for survival against overwhelming odds with a single gun. At a time when the law of the land was every man for himself, the news reader’s nobility is sometimes questionable, but thanks to the polish of Mr. Hanks and his young co-star, plus a sympathetic supporting cast that includes Mare Winningham and Elizabeth Marvel, the film’s bravery and humanity are never less than sincere. The measured decency of Captain Kidd shines through Mr. Hanks’ performance as he cautiously builds his character into something beyond the basic outline in the script by Luke Davies, co-written with director Paul Greengrass. Like the memorable character John Ford created for Natalie Wood in The Searchers, nothing much is learned about the girl or the horrors she endured during her days under Indian enslavement, but the sordid details are instead left up to the imagination.
To the film’s credit, you are also spared the operatic details of what brought the captain from the role of a once-prominent printer from San Antonio who lost everything in the Texas trenches of the Civil War to a cross between town crier and traveling postman. The bare bones add up to a three-dimensional person typical of the heroes Mr. Hanks always plays so well.
Admittedly, the pacing is too leisurely to sustain the kind of suspense American filmgoers expect from the cowboys-and-Indians genre, and the whole movie is too sad to label an entertainment, but there is so much to admire here that the sluggish tempo is easily forgiven. Gorgeously shot amid the caramel deserts and peppermint skies of New Mexico, News of the World is a worthy and intelligent footnote to the western genre.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.
News of the World is out in theaters.