NEWS OF THE WORLD is a somber and sober tale of post-Civil War Texas with few surprises as it wends its way through the mythos of the Old West, unfolding as it does as a metaphor. Or is it an allegory? Perhaps a microcosm of the world’s ills, both then and now? All those elements are present, from a lynching near the beginning of the film, to the way a band of Native Americans appear on the plains as mystical refugees, and then move wordlessly past our hero.
That would be a grizzled Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, played as and by Tom Hanks, late of the Confederate army and currently plying his trade as an itinerant newsreader in the dusty towns of the Lone Star state. The crowds are appreciative, cheering the news they like, protesting that which they don’t (President Grant and the 13th Amendment, for example), and paying the good Captain a dime each for his efforts as he declaims the stories dressed in his best by the light of a kerosene lamp. During his wanderings, he comes upon the stranded Johanna (Helena Zengel), a German pre-teen lately recovered from the Kiowa. With no one else to take responsibility for the child frightened into a near feral state, and no English besides, Kidd tasks himself with the 400-mile journey over bad roads to reunite the girl with her only living kin. We know all this because Kidd explains it to his uncomprehending charge by way of exposition for our benefit.
The journey is fraught, as metaphors/allegories need to be. Kidd is confronted by another ex-Confederate (Michael Angelo Covino), who demands to buy the child in order make a living off her in the most unsavory way thinkable. They travel through the dangerous territory of a capitalist (Thomas Francis Murphy) gone mad with power as he treads the certain path to fascism while wiping out the region’s buffalo. There are the indignities inflicted by the occupying troops enforcing the post-war Reconstruction. These are not plot points so much as our protagonist’s Pilgrim’s Progress, each interlude a moral lesson for them and for us.
As Kidd and Johanna travel, they reach first a détente, and then a bond, each learning a bit of the other’s language, so much the better for them, or at least him, to engage in philosophical musings about how to view life as a whole. Certainly, neither of them has a settled place in the world, Johanna torn from one family to another, and Kidd avoiding his own San Antonio home for reasons that take on a theological bent by they time they are fully revealed.
Hanks is the Hanks we expect and, rightly, love. He is the soul of self-effacing nobility, compelled to do the right thing and with the will to overcome any obstacle to do so. He brings a touch of stoicism here, and a gentle sadness that is legitimately affecting without making the viewer feel manipulated. Zengel is just as resonant in a role that is all but silent, but that speaks emotional volumes. With her Fra Angelico face, and startling resiliency in one so young, she holds her own with the old pro, and sometimes actually dominates their scenes together with the sheer emotional candor of a performance that relies on a powerfully counterintuitive subtlety.
The genre tropes of NEWS OF THE WORLD are handled by director Paul Greengrass with a straightforwardness that respects their familiarity but preserves them from being cliché. The tone is quiet and measured, even during a shoot-out or a wagon mishap, relying instead on the actors to carry the drama, which they do masterfully. It’s echoed in a color scheme that is muted earth tones and a camera that creates a sense of unease by placing the characters in landscapes that seem swallow them whole.
This is a fine, if not great, piece of filmmaking, more thoughtful than though-provoking. Still, this contemplation of how to move forward after tragedy has a genuine poetry to it.