Film Review: “News of the World” — An Intimate Two-Shot of a Western

By Betsy Sherman

The filmmakers use their story to point toward a way to help us navigate through our own polarization; it has something to do with each of us widening our perspective to take in more than just our immediate experience.

News of the World, directed by Paul Greengrass. Screening at AMC Boston Common and other cinemas around New England.

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World. Photo: Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures

Western movies may be set in the 19th century (usually), but they can be a good barometer of the time in which they’re made. That’s how we got western allegories about issues as seemingly far-flung as the Hollywood blacklist and the Vietnam War. The latest effort from British director Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks, after their superb Captain Phillips, is News of the World, a western set after the Civil War. The action takes the gentleman played by Hanks and a girl-in-distress played by Helena Zengel through a picturesque but harsh American landscape during a time of deep divisions among the populace. The filmmakers use their story to point toward a way to help us navigate through our own polarization; it has something to do with each of us widening our perspective to take in more than just our immediate experience.

From a screenplay by Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on a novel by Paulette Jiles, News of the World is most affecting as it considers how a man who prizes the power of words is able to forge a bond that transcends language. It’s at its most clumsy when it tries to weave an overt political message into the relationship story; the handiwork is just too obvious.

It’s 1870 in Texas. The troops of President Ulysses S. Grant are an occupying force, galling to those who still cling to the Confederacy. There’s a more conciliatory path, however, and its way is lighted by Captain Jeffrey Kyle Kidd — in the person of Tom Hanks, he’s a sensitive former Confederate officer. Kidd travels among frontier towns giving readings from a selection of big-city newspapers, charging ten cents for the show. Leavening the hard news with human interest stories, he’s often interrupted by hecklers who don’t want to hear about, for example, those new amendments to the constitution giving rights to formerly enslaved people. Kidd tries to calm the bigots as he would a skittish horse, and he urges them to consider the role everyone has to play in rebuilding the nation.

Elements of Kidd’s backstory are doled out little by little; he was a printer before the war, living in San Antonio with his wife. While en route to a gig, he comes upon an overturned wagon. A few steps farther on, a Black government agent hangs from a tree with a handbill attached to his chest that says “This is a White Man’s Country.” Nearby, a girl in a buckskin dress, about 10 years old, trembles in fright. Her hair is blonde, her skin white with freckles. Kidd reads the documentation the agent was carrying: the girl is named Johanna, and she had been taken captive by Kiowa people after they killed her family six years earlier.

Kidd takes the girl to a military outpost, hoping to hand her off to someone who’ll transport her to her aunt and uncle in Castroville, Texas. When that seems unlikely to happen, he decides to take her himself on that 400-mile journey through dangerous territory. A comrade from the war gives him a wagon, supplies, and a pistol to supplement the rifle he carries that’s only loaded with birdshot.

Director John Ford made some westerns, The Searchers (1956) and Two Rode Together (1961), that center on the subject of woman and child settlers who were captured by and lived among Native Americans. In these films, some not-necessarily-sympathetic characters were of the opinion that those captives cross a line and thus lose their claim to being civilized (or, to put it more bluntly, to being white). In these debates, ideas about race combined with Cold War ideas about brainwashing.

News of the World’s Johanna/Cicada (her Kiowa name) doesn’t have to carry that weight. Her identification with the Kiowas who raised her is treated with sympathy. She’s more a fish out of water than a threat. Kidd, a man who’s had no young’uns in his life, is faced with a complete language barrier: now she speaks Kiowa, and before that she spoke German, as the daughter of immigrant farmers. We, the audience, on the other hand, know exactly what Johanna is saying because her dialogue is subtitled; she’s given a voice, and dignity, rarely endowed by the westerns of old Hollywood.

Kidd’s news-reading tour must go on, even during a journey marked by friction and comic miscommunication between the riders. The Captain’s hotel-proprietor friend and lover Mrs. Gannett can speak Kiowa and knows the tribe’s customs; she finds out that Johanna is “an orphan twice over,” her Kiowa family having been killed by soldiers.

After the show, some young hotheads approach Kidd and ask if he wants to sell the girl. Kidd and Johanna flee, but the wagon can’t outrace the men’s horses. There’s a well-staged gunfight in which both the white-bearded “man of years” and the agile girl have their stamina and ingenuity tested. When they’re on the road again, they exchange language lessons and engage in a philosophy discussion dependent on gestures.

More obstacles of the self-dubbed civilized kind block their way. The travelers are stopped at the edge of Erath, the fiefdom of one Mr. Farley — who isn’t so much a character as a dramatic device on whose shoulders all the sins of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries are placed. Rampant killing of bison for their hides, environmental degradation, the exploitation of his scores of workers, racism, propagandizing, and violence — this interlude is like a game of Heinousness Bingo. When Farley hears of Kidd’s trade, he tells the Captain to give the workers a reading from his own Erath Journal. Kidd instead recounts a story about an uprising by Pennsylvania miners against their boss.

Fortunately, the movie rebounds from that cartoonish sequence. A site of Johanna’s trauma is revisited, and there’s ruminating about whether it’s better to forget bad experiences or to deal with the memories (Kidd has his own personal pain, although his actions during the war are left vague). When they reach their destination, the play of emotions across Hanks’s face as Kidd struggles with his decision whether to part with Johanna ranks among the actor’s best moments on screen.

German actress Helena Zengel is outstanding as Johanna; her grasp of both the physical and emotional demands of the role keep the story from being a mere tearjerker. Noteworthy among the supporting cast are Elizabeth Marvel as Mrs. Gannett and Fred Hechinger as a young man whose mind is sparked by Kidd’s stories. The period detail feels authentic, there’s some gorgeous photography by Dariusz Wolski, and James Newton’s restrained score is excellent.

If News of the World falls short as a broad canvas, it succeeds as a satisfying, intimate two-shot.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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