In his first western, Tom Hanks plays an itinerant news reader from Texas who tries to transport a young girl who was an Indian captive to her relatives.
The traditional conventions of the western presuppose a lot of assumptions about America that we’ve since learned are untrue or at least are much more complex. English director Paul Greengrass, now established as a prominent Hollywood filmmaker, has crafted a western that emphasizes different aspects of the West than we’re used to—based on a Paulette Giles novel and starring Tom Hanks, it’s called News of the World.
The title comes from an interesting premise. Hanks plays a Civil War veteran, Captain Jefferson Kidd, who scrapes together a tenuous living by going from town to town, reading stories from national newspapers to public gatherings, for which he charges a dime a person. I immediately wondered if this was a real thing that people did back then, and it turns out that it is. There was a real Captain Kidd, one of the author’s ancestors, who did just that. Americans in isolated western towns didn’t have much opportunity to learn what was happening in other places or nationally. Hanks’s character has a clear and simple delivery; he’s providing an education, but he lends the reading enough drama to make it entertaining as well.
We then see the Captain on the road in Texas, where by chance he finds a little white girl hiding in an overturned wagon, but only speaking Kiowa. Eventually he pieces together the truth: she was taken by the Indian tribe after her parents were killed. Now this is one case where an old western theme is being employed. There were Indian captivities, but the consensus now is that they became famous beyond their frequency, which means, in other words, that the captivity stories were sensationalized. In this film it’s a plot element that is not lent much resonance.
In any case, the girl, Johanna, played by 11-year-old Helena Zengel, thinks of herself as Kiowa, doesn’t want to be taken into white society, and is suspicious of Captain Kidd. He tries to get her turned over to authorities, but meeting resistance, decides to take the girl himself to her surviving relatives in southeast Texas. He’s a fundamentally decent person, which we expect from a Tom Hanks character, but the film wisely places his decency in the context of war weariness and regret—he seems to have left a wife in San Antonio, under dark circumstances that we don’t learn about until later.
As the Captain and the young girl travel together, they encounter serious threats, from some ex-soldiers who want to buy the girl from the Captain, to a racist outlaw officer basically running a Texas county on behalf of his gang—a menacing situation when he takes a dislike to Kidd.
The vision of the West presented by News of the World is of a very dangerous place in which men’s worst instincts come to the fore. This isn’t a time of romance or glory or even the pioneer spirit—this is a painful and difficult time. And it gives the film a dark edge, but the remarkable aspect is how Kidd gradually makes the girl feel safe, and in the process starts to have parental-like feelings for her, feelings of which he is only partly conscious.
I tried to remember some other western with Tom Hanks, and I couldn’t, because it turns out that this is his first western. His personality fits so well into the genre that it seems as if he’s been acting in them for years. He’s worked with Greengrass before, as another captain, Captain Phillips, and just like in that movie, the director displays a talent for depicting people in extreme situations. In News of the World he gives us some tense and exciting scenes—this is someone who also directed a few of the Jason Bourne movies. But here, even with the conflict and the violence, Greengrass is stretching out and allowing more time for emotion and character. He allows the story to breathe, and meander into side journeys at times. Hanks has a marvelous rapport with the child actor, Zengel, who turns in a fine performance as the traumatized girl. The film is about the bond that develops between them—the plot, with all its historical hints and ramifications, is really just a way to bring out this simple story of love. And News of the World does that well.