News of the World movie review: Tom Hanks' post-Civil War drama is the reaffirming story we need in a time of crisis
Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel's pairing lifts News of the World beyond the ordinary into something far sweeter and sublime.
I didn't quite expect to find reflections of our time in a period Western, set in 1870, but that's exactly what you get in News of the World, the Tom Hanks-starrer now out on Netflix, and in the very first scene.
We see Hanks' character, a Civil War veteran called Captain Kidd, reading the news to a group of folks in Wichita Falls, all of whom have paid 10 cents for the service. Kidd goes through his collection of newspapers and picks out the reports he thinks would be of particular interest to his listeners in each town, a mix of events of national import, local developments, slice-of-life features and stories of serendipitous occurrences. He isn't like your modern-day newsreader though; Captain Kidd is a travelling storyteller, and his stories are the news.
The report he's reading on this occasion is about an epidemic of meningitis that has already claimed 97 lives in a two-month period. His voice drives home the urgency of the threat, then turns heavy with sorrow and reverence for the dead. When he finishes the evening's reading, he retires to his rooms, and by the glance he casts at a framed photograph of a woman, we see that his is a lonely existence. The next morning, he's back on the road with his horses, and moving towards the events that will change the course of his life.
Kidd is travelling through a South that may have lost the Civil War, but still resists the ideas of the North. There's resentment about having to pay reparations/war debt; the presence of Union soldiers is a sore point, as is the careful regulation of guns among those who served in the Confederate army; there's resistance to the abolishment of slavery and the granting of fundamental rights to Black individuals. The world Kidd moves through is changing in other ways as well: the railroad is extending its presence (the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869), cutting through Indian reservations. Tribes of Native Americans are on the move, their ways of life destroyed. Everything is in flux, and the roads are unsafe.
So when Kidd comes across an overturned wagon on a deserted stretch of his route, with blood splattered on the rocky ground, he is naturally cautious. He scans the surrounding area until he finds a man strung up on a tree, murdered for being Black. Then, Kidd discovers the other passenger from the wagon — a girl of about 10, nearly feral, dressed (and speaking) in the Kiowa Indian style. A little more investigation reveals her origins: she is Johanna, the daughter of German settlers killed by the Kiowa, who adopted the six-year-old girl into their tribe. She lived with the Kiowa for four years before being 'rescued' by soldiers leading a massacre, and was being taken to an aunt and uncle's distant farm. A series of events leads Kidd to reluctantly conclude that he will have to escort Johanna — a distance of 400 miles over the wild Texas plains — himself.
The vast and oft unforgiving landscape around them poses both obstacles and opportunity — an opportunity for Kidd and Johanna to learn about each other, to communicate with each other. Their difficulties are both practical and psychological: a case of not knowing the other's language, and also their individual reticence. As Kidd teaches Joanna some rudimentary English, and she tutors him in Kiowa, there are both learning each other's ways too. Kidd's focus is on moving forward, straight ahead (literally and figuratively). For Johanna, there can be no moving forward until the past has been remembered. Sometimes, you have to circle back or take a detour to get to where you want. Their journey changes them both, gets each to confront the loss that has marked their lives thus far. And they become a team, working together to fight against the perilous road and the even more perilous people along it.
There's a certain predictability to the plot, as Kidd and Johanna battle a trio of former Confederate soldiers-turned-traffickers; a militia in a small Texan town led by a bloodthirsty overlord; dust storms, thirst and exhaustion, to reach their journey's end. Still, there are several tense moments when there's a shootout amid a rocky outcropping, wrenching revelations, and memorable characters with brief roles to play in Kidd and Johanna's story (Fred Hechinger especially stands out as John Calley, a vulnerable young sidekick in the militia). The ending too has an element of deja vu, but mirrors the ethos of Johanna's philosophy: sometimes, to move forward, you must first go back; and the best path to one's destination may not always lie straight ahead.
Hanks, who reunites here with his Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass, turns in yet another sensitive performance. Kidd is a quiet man who uses his weapons efficiently — whether that's a gun, or words. There's an innate decency to him that's almost like a soothing balm amid the implied and depicted violence of this landscape and era. Opposite him, the 12-year-old Helena Zengel is perfect as the wilful, sometimes melancholy-sometimes spirited Johanna. Just the set of her face or body language is enough to indicate the depths of despair and confusion Johanna has experienced in her short life. It is this pairing that lifts News of the World beyond the ordinary into something far sweeter and sublime.
Perhaps the film's value is best encapsulated by referring to a scene from it. When Kidd and Johanna are taken into custody by the militia, the boss forces him to read to the crowd from a self-published, self-aggrandising newsletter. Instead, Kidd rouses the gathered people by reading them a news report about a group of coal miners who made it out alive from a collapsed shaft. To a group of people leading such brutalised lives, the story represents a spark of hope, of possibility, even of solidarity — that individuals thousands of miles away are facing overwhelming odds too, and in some instances, triumphing over them. News of the World is like that too: light in a dark time, a reminder that there is good in the world and in people even when it doesn't always seem evident, and that it is in seeking connections with/knowledge of each other that we nourish our own humanity.
News of the World is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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