Perhaps the boldest thing about News of the World is how it doesn’t aim for boldness at all. Unlike many modern Westerns, which busy themselves with reinventing the genre or tearing down the mythos of frontier life, News just delivers a good old-fashioned movie. It’s an entertaining story, centered on a man who likes to tell entertaining stories.
The film takes place a few years after the Civil War, when the nation’s psyche was still raw and reeling. Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks), a Confederate veteran, travels to insular pockets of civilization, a satchel of newspapers at his side. He assembles the townsfolk and, for a small fee, reads interesting headlines from around the world. Kidd often colors these articles with his own flair, capturing the wonder of spellbound audiences.
This life as a nomadic broadcaster gets derailed when Kidd happens on the corpse of a lynched black man. As he draws closer to investigate, a frightened little girl leaps out of the bushes and makes a run for it. Although blonde and blue-eyed, she is dressed as a Native American and speaks nothing but Kiowa. Her papers identify her as Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), and she was taken in by the Kiowa after they killed her family. Now that the tribe has been killed or driven out by the army, Johanna finds herself twice orphaned. The lynched man was charged to deliver her to a white aunt and uncle.
Stuck with an abandoned, headstrong little girl, Kidd suddenly finds himself between a rock and a hard place: She’ll be an impediment to his work, but his sense of decency compels him to act. Kidd resolves to put Johanna back with her family, a journey of many hundreds of miles. They will contend with perilous terrain and marauding bandits. And, if you’ve seen any movies at all, you know one thing is inevitable: Somewhere along the way, these two disparate souls will come to love one another.
Any serious movie buff will also spot overt similarity to The Searchers, John Wayne’s monolithic Western. In that film, Wayne’s character–also a Civil War veteran, also a captain–spends years trying to rescue his niece (Natalie Wood) after she is abducted by the Comanche. There are, however, some key differences between the two: News has a softer feel, with a softer protagonist at its core. Wayne’s Ethan burns with anger, and his racism and singular drive for vengeance gives The Searchers much of its furious momentum. In the hands of Hanks, Kidd is kinder, gentler, and more worldly. This makes News of the World a story that covers some of the same ground, albeit in a much more poignant way.
In the hands of veteran director Paul Greengrass (who also co-writes), News has the look and feel of a classic Western. Greengrass delivers big, gorgeous panoramas of the American Southwest, wherein bald mountains and the rocky sprawl of sagebrush hills are prominent enough to become supporting characters in of themselves. At the same time, a key shootout is shot with claustrophobic intensity, playing on audience fears of what we can’t see. Greengrass, whose shaky camerawork on the Borne films made me want to hork up my Skittles, thankfully opts for a calmer, steadier hand here.
As for the performances, Hanks anchors the film. But you already knew that. He infuses Kidd with instant likability and genteel gravitas. For all its skill, News just wouldn’t be the same film without him. Zengel more than holds her own with Hanks, which is high praise indeed. Her Johanna still exudes sweetness and vulnerability, despite the fact that she has lived too much in too short of a life. An overwhelming amount of runtime focuses on Hanks and Zengel exclusively, and their sturdy work makes the whole movie go.
In many ways, News of the World mirrors the work of its main subject: Like Kidd, the filmmakers find a good story and tell it well. It’s honestly refreshing to experience a movie that doesn’t try to reach beyond its grasp. This is an entertaining, well-acted film that knows exactly what it wants to be. What more could we need?
118 min. PG-13.