It seems unlikely that in his long and storied career, Tom Hanks has never been in a Western, but News of the World is his first one, a collaboration with writer/director Paul Greengrass. Hanks plays Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kidd, a man who makes his way after the war by traveling town to town to read out the big city newspapers. For a dime each, townies attend a Chautauqua of dramatic readings that inform and entertain. Captain Kidd is a charismatic performer, drawing his audience in with human interest stories while carefully managing controversial political news.
Traveling through Indian Territory to Texas, he finds an abandoned White child. He brings her with him, intending to give her into the care of the local cavalry garrison. According to papers, he finds her name is Johanna (Helena Zengel), and it turns out that she has been raised by the Kiowa tribe that killed her family in a raid some years ago. She’s wearing Kiowa leathers and speaks only their language. However, the cavalry wants nothing to do with her and suggests that Kidd take Johanna to her aunt and uncle, her only living relatives in America. Kidd agrees, and he sets out on the dangerous road to Castroville, Texas.
Johanna is not interested in being re-integrated into White culture. The Kiowa abandoned her out of fear of retribution for kidnapping her, but having grown up with them, she considers herself Kiowa and wants to return to the tribe. She runs away at every opportunity. People who offer her charity along the way are stung by her ungratefulness.
“For a dime each, townies attend a Chautauqua of dramatic readings that inform and entertain.”
They travel through a horror show of the real American West, meeting a mix of brigands, deviants, warlords, displaced Native Americans, and a smattering of good people. With miles of rough terrain between towns, surviving the landscape is as much of a challenge as dealing with people who have no accountability to any authority. We’ve heard that history is made at night, that character is what you are in the dark, and the deserted miles between any civil authority might as well be a moonless midnight.
Hanks is remarkable, as we’ve come to expect. At this point, it would only be notable if he did not perform a film role to perfection. Newcomer Helena Zengel plays Johanna with confidence and skill as well, and there is real chemistry between the two as a father-daughter dynamic emerges. With Greengrass at the helm, News of the World is delivered brilliantly.
James Newton Howard’s score gives us proper Western flare without turning it into a martial festival celebration, and the cinematography is as breathtaking as you’d want it to be in the picturesque American West. The film is based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, which is loosely based on the real-life travels of a man named Captain Adolphus Caesar Kydd.
"…the cowboy/gunslinger is a myth."