Leave it to Tom Hanks to give us the movie we all need right now. He’s not trying to stretch his persona—to play someone villainous or over-the-top or extraordinary. He’s giving us the Full Tom Hanks—playing a man of unassailable, bedrock decency, albeit one who carries the heavy burden of his own past.
Directed by the great Paul Greengrass, News of the World is an unusual Reconstruction Era Western because our hero, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, fought for the Confederacy. He’s from Texas, after all, and that’s what Texans did. He lost a lot as a result of the war—including a promising career as a newspaper man—so now he travels from town to town, reading highlights of the news to townspeople.
One thing I love about Hanks: He doesn’t ham it up. Nine out of ten actors would play this character in full cornpone mode—as a carnival barker of sorts, a showman, a loudmouth—particularly since he has to command a sometimes rowdy room of hungry and tired Civil War veterans. But Hanks plays him with an easygoing charm and quiet dignity. He commands the room the same way that Hanks commands a movie screen—without trying too hard.
One day, as Kidd is on the path moving to the next town, he comes across the aftermath of a horrible scene: a buggy overturned, blood on the ground, a Black man hanging from a tree. And then he hears rustling in the trees—it’s a towheaded young girl (extraordinary newcomer Helena Zengel), no more than 10-years-old, with a scared and slightly feral look about her. Looking at the papers on the stagecoach, he’s able to piece together a bit of her story: Her family was killed by Native Americans, who raised her as their own, but who were then murdered themselves by soldiers. The hanging man was supposed to take her hundreds of miles away—to be with her German-American aunt and uncle, who don’t even know she’s alive. Her birth name is Johanna, but she calls herself Cicada. And she speaks Kiowa, not English or German.
Kidd takes her back to town hoping to find someone suitable to bring her to her aunt and uncle. Eventually he realizes that the only suitable person is himself.
So, together, they travel the rather treacherous trail through Texas to get to Johanna’s family. Along the way, Kidd teaches her a bit of English and Johanna teaches him Kiowa. He discovers that she has some indistinct but harrowing memories of her own traumas—and he relates to that, wants to protect from any further pain. He also discovers that she’s quite resourceful—more rugged and quick on her feet than a typical child. And yet, she’s still a child, who needs a family and love and stability.
Johanna and Kidd encounter some bad men along the way—men who want to hurt her, or worse. Con-men, crooks, and bandits who want to exploit the chaos of a post-war Texas. So there are shoot-em-ups and chases, just like you might see in any Western. But this is a quiet and patient film. It’s about a relationship between two broken people.
News of the World is not explicitly political, but it does understand that not everyone who fought in for the Confederacy believed in the cause. Some have even carried regret, guilt, and sorrow. Kidd is such a man. So the film is about moving away from a time of extreme divisiveness to one of one of love and redemption. The final scene made my heart swell.
News of the World opens Christmas day, exclusively in theaters.