Life has not turned out as Jefferson Kidd expected. The character – played by Tom Hanks in News of the World – was once a husband and a decorated veteran of three wars, most recently the Civil War. Now he's a widower who barely earns a living traveling from town to town, reading the newspaper to locals too lazy (or unable) to do it for themselves. On the road, he encounters Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old girl taken by the Kiowa people. She speaks no English, but apparently has an aunt and uncle at the other end of Texas with whom she could live.
Kidd realizes that a number of dubious individuals would be perfectly willing to mistreat Johanna, including Almay (Michael Angelo Covino), a former Confederate soldier and utter scoundrel who attempts to purchase the girl from him. He therefore decides to transport her himself. Aside from Almay, the two face a number of threats, such as Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), a lawless businessman who has a small army of goons dedicated to keeping non-whites out of his town.
Directed by Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) from a novel by Paulette Jiles, News of the World revolves around two vastly different people who share a sad commonality: the loss of their loved ones. Kidd sees helping Johanna as a manner of healing his own inner pain from the death of his wife. While incapable of fully understanding anything he says, the girl instinctively recognizes a kindred spirit, consequently giving him her trust.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which direction the story is headed. Nevertheless, the pleasure comes from seeing how it gets there. Greengrass avoids heavy-handed obviousness, instead focusing on the ways Kidd and Johanna form little connections that transcend their language barrier. Those connections build naturally to a foregone conclusion about the last act, allowing it to have a ring of truth rather than feeling manipulative.
In between those touching character-based moments are some sequences of great tension. An ambush by Almay and his cohorts leads to a nail-biting shootout. The hostility that greets Kidd and Johanna when they get to Farley's town is also nerve-wracking, as is a scene involving a duststorm. Every step of the way, News of the World makes us understand how perilous it is for the characters to be traveling together with no backup during troubled post-Civil War times.
At this point, saying that Tom Hanks gives a great performance seems redundant. Of course he gives a great performance. What's surprising, though, is how comfortably he fits into a Western. Seeing him sitting in a stagecoach or brandishing a rifle never comes off as anachronistic. I would not have expected him to have a Clint Eastwood-esque side to his personality, yet here it is. Kidd's pain is palpable, his battle-weary toughness credible. Hanks is matched by Zengel, who has much less dialogue but conveys a world of emotions with just a look. The young actress is phenomenal.
News of the World is about facing adversity and how people can support one another in doing it. The Western trappings, including gorgeous cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (The Martian), plunge us into a time and place so that the struggles of the two leads are raw and unforgiving. That the film ends with an honestly earned ray of hope just makes it all the better.
This is one of the best, most engrossing Westerns of recent years.
out of four
News of the World is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.