By the faint orange glow of a lantern, a weary, well-kempt traveler hunches over a lectern to speak to a Wichita Falls crowd. He carries newspapers from Dallas and India and Keel Run, Pennsylvania. Today he’s reading aloud a February issue of The Houston Telegraph to a hushed throng. There is a meningitis epidemic spreading, he reports. It’s claimed 97 souls. We’re not sure whether the reports he brings are recent or not; he travels between a rotation of Texas towns that are miles and days apart, so there must be a lag. But with each story he shares, the crowd gasps as though the events were happening before their very eyes. The reader is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks). He brings the news of the world.
Paul Greengrass’ News of the World — based on Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name — is a leaden, drawn-out Western that’s saved by its two knowing lead performances and a reverence for how the right stories can heal divisions. Kidd once served in the Civil War. Now, in 1870 Northern Texas, he reads the news at a tiny cost to farmers without the time. While traveling to his next town, he comes upon the wreckage of a wagon on the side of the road, and an adolescent blonde girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), dressed in indigenous garb. Six years ago, her German parents were killed by a Kiowa tribe, only for the same people to adopt her as their own. Kidd will transport Johanna over 400 miles worth of treacherous Texas road in the hopes of uniting her with her remaining German relatives. Through the crisp capturing of Texas’ wide forlorn purple skies, and the painful losses that fill every mile of the seemingly endless inhospitable roads, Greengrass turns the mission into a fight against the past demons that are trailing just behind his protagonists.
Johanna and Kidd’s journey together is reminiscent of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ True Grit. The gruff-voiced Kidd takes Johanna only because the federal troops nor Kidd’s quaint religious friends in Red River will. The odd pair, however, are parallel: Johanna has repressed the memories of her family’s gruesome death, while Kidd has been running from his home in San Antonio, shared with his wife, since the war ended five years ago. And though Johanna doesn’t speak English, the script co-written by Greengrass and Luke Davies is dialogue heavy. The filmmakers craft the film’s surrogate father-daughter relationship as a slow drip of rudimentary conversations between Johanna and Kidd that amounts to different cycles of “Me Tarzan. You Jane.”
Greengrass builds a grim and gritty landscape in News of the World. It’s a dark plain, as evinced by Dariusz Wolski’s gorgeous photography, whose only light comes by way of a lantern’s weak glimmer. Kidd is its honed Hanksian hero, an ordinary man called to do extraordinary things. Though the character originates from San Antonio, the actor doesn’t don the common southern accent heard among the Texas crowds. For most performers that decision might carry a whiff of laziness. But it works for Hanks because Kidd is at once part of and separate from the land. His face is smeared with the dirt of Texas earth. His heart feels for its people. Yet he is a calming, objective voice rising above their restlessness.
While Greengrass doesn’t boil the common Texas folk down to Western archetypes like the drunk, the lone sheriff, or the outlaw, the two leads embody distinct paradigms. Johanna is a not-too-subtle metaphor for Reconstruction-era Texas. The state not only grapples with the slavery issue, but settlers also killing indigenous people for their lands, and indigenous people are killing settlers for taking it. As with Texas, Joanna must choose between two old worlds, German and Native, before she can adopt the spirit of her new country. Zengel gives a breakout performance as the vessel for the continental change. The triumph for the young German actress isn’t only her learning Kiowa for the role. It’s her verbal acting, too. It’s how she builds out the character from wild feral child to withdrawn passenger to ebullient child through the slightest changes in presence. Moves that feel beyond her years. There’s never a scene where Zengel is overwhelmed by Hanks’ star power.
And if Johanna is Texas, then Kidd is a reflection of the older antebellum generation shepherding the new land past the ghosts of old. Barring a shoot-out between Kidd and a trio of child sex traders, News of the World isn’t as bruising nor as cerebral as Greengrass’ prior efforts like The Bourne Supremacy and Captain Phillips, but it does employ his shaky-cam, vérité style albeit to quieter degrees. The director began his career as a journalist for the ITV current affairs programme World in Action. So it’s no surprise that a tale about the power of journalism to inspire through uncommon stories is idealistic.
Kidd finds this idealism tested when he and Johanna are taken prisoner by Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy). Farley is a ruthless despot of a kind of dystopian place, a place made of dust and blood, where Mexican and Indigenous people, and buffalo are being slaughtered in equal numbers, called Erath county. He orders Kidd to read aloud the newspaper he personally publishes to the people of Erath. Kidd, instead, tells them a parable about a mining town called Keel Run owned by a figure similar to Farely. Greengrass’ unifying compositions show Kidd standing on high, speaking with the intonation of a statesman. They also display the town folks’ gleaming faces painted by the orange-lighted nighttime. This is where Greengrass’ calmer shaky-cam style comes to the forefront. And to the tune of James Newton Howard’s swelling patriotic score, we have a sense that Kidd isn’t bringing democracy to this once fiefdom, he’s speaking a new history into existence. It’s a scene that would make Spielberg proud.
News of the World is rough around the edges. It’s an indigenous story without many indigenous people. Its pacing is slow. And the narrative’s conflicts are too easily solvable through kindness. But it’s the destination, where both Kidd and Johanna confront their respective traumas, which makes the long road they travel compelling and honest.
For Hanks and Greengrass, News of the World is a sturdy vehicle rather than a defining entry in their filmographies. But there’s just enough truth in the stories they tell — where manifest destiny isn’t ceaselessly lurching forward without some moral cost for the pioneer, where loss is not healed through gunfights but ideals — for this Western yarn to be a pleasured acquaintance. And there ain’t no mistaken’ that.
News of the World arrives to theaters on Dec. 25, 2020.