by SC Reviewer Shelby Larsen
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a good Western, and News of the World, is exactly that – a good Western. It’s got all the classic hallmarks: a lone, conflicted hero, a past he regrets but can’t escape, lawless towns, hardscrabble settlers, a disreputable woman, and even a lost, blonde child. It’s setting is shared American belief in the rugged, and lawless, frontier as the population spread over the continent. But this time, it also has Tom Hanks
Now, I have to admit that it’s always hard for me to see Tom Hanks as anything other than Tom Hanks. No matter what kind of role he has, no matter how skillfully and subtlety he may embody the essence of the character, he is still Tom Hanks, and I know he has a core of decency inside and whatever the demons and/or trials faced by that character, that essence of decency will evince itself somewhere, sometime during the film.
That said, this is a very good Tom Hanks movie. It’s arguably the first film in which the age, of both the character and the actor, blend so convincingly that you feel his world weariness, and his acceptance of the world that has been marked by violence and discord throughout his life. Hanks brings all of that, with few words of exposition, and a great amount of empathy to the screen. It’s a notable work by Tom Hanks, actor, rather than Tom Hanks, renown movie star.
In a story set in post-Civil War Texas, Hanks is equally matched by 12-year-old Helena Zengel, who plays the child of German settlers, taken by Kiowa natives, after a raid on the settlers. Zengle’s Johanna, the almost feral child, has almost no dialogue, making her performance all the more remarkable, matching Hanks moment for moment.
Hanks’ character, ex -Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, has, post war, traveled through large, and sparsely populated Texas territory, reading excerpts of newspapers to local residents. As he moves from one settlement to another, he encounters the aftermath of a lynching. The victim seems to have been tasked with transporting a young girl, Johanna Leonberger, recovered from the Kiowa after they, in their turn, were slaughtered, making her twice orphaned.
Captain Kidd, though weary, disillusioned, both frustrated and accepting of his Reconstruction, post-bellum life, cannot bring himself to abandon the almost feral child. The two embark on what is essentially a road trip. Along the way, they encounter obstacles familiar to all viewers of Western movies — the bad guys who want to buy Johanna for immoral purposes, a chase, a gunfight in a rocky outcrop, the powerful man who controls a town, not to mention hunger and thirst in the southwestern desert, in Kidd’s to return Joanna to an aunt and uncle, the only family she has left, though they are unknown to her. Not surprisingly, during their travels, their relationship warms, and they learn respect and admiration for each other.
All of this is accomplished with few words, but set amidst vast, evocative scenery (New Mexico, substituting for West Texas). The casting is superb, as is the costuming and art direction, fully matching the cinematography conveying the vastness of the Western frontier. Everyone, and I mean every character, every extra, looks as if they had just stepped out of an 1875 photograph.
It is tempting to draw comparisons to the issues faced by Captain Kidd and Johanna to issues today, and if one wishes to see parallels, they are there. Director Paul Greenglass, if indeed he intends this to be a more modern morality tale, does so with a light hand. In his news readings, Captain Kidd references an outbreak of meningitis, and later, of a cholera epidemic. He reads of the need for Texas to adopt the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution in order to be admitted to the United States, and Greenglass briefly shows the anger and defiance in his audience. Union soldiers are patrolling towns, and there’s one man controlling a settlement who insists on Kidd’s reading of Fake News.
It’s certainly possible to read messages into the film. If that is your bent, please also note that the primary theme of the film is the acceptance, and eventual warmth, between the two main characters. It’s also worth noting the gradual changes Kidd makes in his choice of reading the news of the world.
If, though, like me, you simply want a rewarding and positive story that will stand the test of time, that’s there, too. Long after the pandemic has passed, and, hopefully, when the excessive divisiveness that tears through American society now is muted, this road trip into our shared legendary past will remain. Let’s hope its’ essence extends throughout what will undoubtedly be many, many opportunities to see it on our screens.