In the filmography of Tom Hanks that intersects with Paul Greengrass, he was the Captain then and he is the Captain now in their collaborations. The first was 2013’s Captain Phillips and I still harbor a grudge that the multiple Oscar winner and nominee didn’t pick up another nod for it. His final scene in Phillips as he’s in shock over the real life events in which he barely survived was reason enough for further awards consideration. That movie left me floored. News of the World left me satisfied as Hanks once again gives a commanding performance with a newcomer costar who is his equal.
This time around, Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. Set in 1870 amidst gorgeous Western scenery, Kidd is a former Confederate soldier traveling the American South. He earns his living schlepping from town to town and reading the latest newspaper stories to an attentive crowd. The happenings of Washington D.C. (led by President Ulysses S. Grant who Southerners aren’t exactly fond of) are hundreds of miles away. Yet 150 years now, they might as well be on Mars. The film doesn’t dwell on these struggling towns digging their way out of the Civil War, but that history is always present underneath the surface.
Kidd’s solo journey is interrupted when he happens upon a young girl Johanna (Helena Zengel). Her blonde hair and blue eyes indicates her German heritage, but her Native American garb tells a different background. She speaks the language of a tribe and it is revealed that her original family and those who raised her after their demise have perished as well. A double orphan, Kidd reluctantly accepts the responsibility of returning Johanna to her surviving family that she’s never met. Kidd’s own familial history is gradually revealed.
Thus begins an episodic quest where the language barrier between the two leads isn’t the only complication. There are also ex-soldiers who try to purchase Johanna and that leads to Kidd entering into battle a half decade after the war’s end. There are rough stops on the speaking tour that put the wild in the west. And, being that it’s Tom Hanks leading the horse drawn wagon, there’s a fundamental decency in his interactions with his copilot and a paternal instinct that kicks in.
News of the World is, quite simply, a rock solid picture. We know Hanks will turn in exemplary work and he does. The performance of Zengel is the surprise and is one of the best child performances in recent memory. She says more with an expression than plenty of actors do in a monologue. It has become cliche to call Hanks the Jimmy Stewart of his time, but it’s so true. There are times when I could imagine Stewart playing this part in something from the 1950s or 60s. That old fashioned vibe is a contrast to Greengrass’s earlier catalogue that includes the Bourne franchise, United 93, and Captain Phillips. Those pictures had a fierce urgency to them. World is more laid back, but with frequent reminders of the violent atmosphere permeating the post War era.
Hanks could read the phonebook and it would draw interest. Telephones didn’t come around until 1876 so his tales off the printed page do just fine. He also has a worthy partner in Zengel and top notch work from his director and crew.
***1/2 (out of four)