I love a good Western, so I am grateful that Paul Greengrass has teamed once again with Tom Hanks for the adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel “News of the World”. This is the first in this genre for Hanks and Greengrass, who co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Davies, and I think they have a winner.
NEWS OF THE WORLD begins five years after the end of the Civil War. Veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) makes his living by going from town to town in Texas reading the news aloud, from newspapers around the world, to anyone who is willing to pay a small fee. Before the war he owned a printing company in San Antonio, but because that and his wife are gone, this life suits him just fine.
After leaving one such small town, Wichita Falls, on his way to another, he encounters an overturned wagon, a Black man hanging from a tree and a blond girl (Helena Zengel) dressed in a Native American deerskin dress. She speaks no English, but Capt. Kidd finds her papers in the wagon which lists her name as Johanna Leonberger. She was taken captive by the Kiowa Tribe when she was four and the rest of her family was killed.
She’s 10 now and her second family has also been murdered, so her Black escort was taking Johanna to her only living relatives 400 miles away before he was hanged. When the U.S. Army refuses to help, Kidd takes it upon himself to deliver Johanna to her aunt and uncle, because, when queried, Kidd answers that “it’s the right thing to do”.
Their journey is fraught with a plethora of hardships, some caused by men, others by Mother Nature. But as they travel --- and endure each setback --- these two people, who are both very alone in the world, begin to form a bond that becomes unbreakable.
Hanks is never better than when he portrays men of substance, which for him, is often. Kidd himself is tormented --- the Civil War was hell, and he is trying to deal with the end results as best he can. He is the voice of reason when his audiences react to the news he imparts --- and there is simply no one better at effecting that voice. Hanks is a steady, calm presence for this young girl who has been orphaned twice, and his sincerity at wanting to make her existence better is life-changing for both of them.
Zengel has a lovely on-screen presence. For such a young actor she has the ability to convey most of her feelings without saying a word. And some of the best scenes of NEWS OF THE WORLD revolve around her and Hanks sitting side-by-side as they try to learn each other’s language or simply ride along in silence. It’s the quiet moments interspersed among all the chaos that solidify the relationship for this unlikely pair.
Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski creates a masterpiece with his wide vistas of tumbleweed plains, dark prairie nights and sweeping views of the Texas hill country, all punctuated with a haunting score by James Newton Howard. Forces of nature such as the parched Earth and blinding sandstorm compete for our attention as Johanna and Kidd navigate this unforgiving terrain. NEWS OF THE WORLD is a gorgeous exercise in storytelling.
Some, not all, will appreciate Hanks’ character’s struggle with relaying the truth. After the Civil War, like now after our recent election, the country was extremely divided. In one scene when Kidd reads out loud the new guidelines set by the government, the listeners erupt, condemning what they’ve heard. It’s apparent we’ve learned very little over the last 155 years.
Opinion: See It Now!
What can be better than a Tom Hanks movie at Christmas? How about a Tom Hanks movie at Christmas that has nothing to do with the holiday but everything to do with Helena Zengel, a 12-year-old, blue-eyed German beauty who co-stars with him?
One trailer for NEWS OF THE WORLD announces that this movie introduces Helena --- which it does to American audiences. The reality is that she was named Best Actress at Germany’s version of the Academy Awards in 2019 for a film called SYSTEM CRASHER. She played a traumatized nine-year-old. In NEWS OF THE WORLD, Helena portrays a traumatized 10-year-old orphan named Johanna Leonberger whom Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) stumbles upon in northern Texas in 1870.
Kidd, an ex-Civil War vet, makes a living travelling from town to town, reading newspaper stories aloud to small groups of the citizenry willing to pay him 10 cents apiece for the privilege. He’s been on the road for four years. His news reading career isn’t lucrative --- he must read the fine print via a magnifying glass --- but he seems to enjoy it as much as the folks who listen to him. Of course, not everyone is thrilled to hear the stories he chooses to share. Some of the news is clearly antagonistic to their situations or political views. He does manage to extricate himself from some dicey spots.
The grizzled Captain Kidd, with his scruffy gray beard, is initially uncomfortable for young Johanna. She speaks no English, having been raised by the Kiowa Native American Tribe since age four. Their stay at a frontier hotel where Kidd knows the owner (Elizabeth Marvel), who happens to speak the Kiowan tongue, helps Johanna learn that Kidd has her best intentions at heart. Hanks is like no other actor when it comes to being empathetic. As he delivers his lines the apprehension by Johanna slowly dissipates and she begins to place her trust in him.
Kidd is trying to reunite Johanna with her aunt and uncle who live in a small German community in Texas. However, the duo runs into all types of trouble from gunslingers and other thugs, some of whom want to “buy” the little blond girl. This results in a couple of life-and-death gun battles, which are as predictable as they are prolonged. At one point a dust storm, scarily created by the filmmakers, proves to be another obstacle they must overcome.
The truth is that NEWS OF THE WORLD, containing no real surprises, is still entertaining. I especially like director Paul Greengrass’ attention to detail. When Hanks runs out of bullets for his pistol and his shotgun shells contain only birdseed, the resourceful Johanna goes off to grab some silver coins to make those shells lethal. As good as Hanks is in this story, it is Zengler who steals the film. It is as much her presence in NEWS OF THE WORLD as any other factor that makes this movie special.
Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, the screenplay is co-written by Luke Davies and Greengrass. The latter is noted for UNITED 93 and the BOURNE series, among others, and NEWS OF THE WORLD reunites him with Hanks as they collaborated on the terrific CAPTAIN PHILLIPS in 2013.
For most of the film Johanna does not smile. But when she does, it literally lights up the screen. The finale puts an exclamation mark on that little detail and nicely wraps up the story. Despite the gun violence --- none of it graphic --- NEWS OF THE WORLD is a film that the whole family can enjoy together.
Opinion: See It Now!