People who watch movies with Tom Hanks in them are usually there more because of Tom Hanks than the movie. With the exception of his frightening killer in “Road to Perdition” and the repulsive author (one of six different characters) he played in “Cloud Atlas,” Hanks has been drawn to portraying sympathetic, well-meaning, positive types - the sort that most audiences are made to feel comfortable with.
There are many reasons to see “News of the World.” It’s a good story; the acting, from a strong cast, is uniformly fine; it looks great; director Paul Greengrass (who also led Hanks in “Captain Phillips”) knows what he’s doing. But its main calling card is the steadfast Hanks, playing Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Texas-bred veteran of the Civil War (on the Confederate side) who, five years after the end of fighting, has started life and career over as a nomad news reader. He rides his horse from town to town, picking up newspapers along the way, stands in front of groups of folks - each of whom has paid a dime - leans back (or sometimes forward), and proceeds to read them the local and federal news of the day. He also fancies himself a bit of an entertainer, so goes beyond just reading it ... he’s up there being a non-fiction storyteller. He also, hinting from the lost look on his face and often quiet demeanor, has something weighing on his mind, perhaps something that he needs to deal with.
Things eventually get around to what’s rattling around in his head and heart, but first there’s a combination road movie and opposites attract tale to take in. Somewhere in Texas, between towns, Kidd comes upon a dead Black man, an overturned cart, and a scared 10-year-old girl (Helena Zengel) nearby. Speaking in the language of the Kiowan tribe, she says to him, revealed in subtitles, “I want to go home.” Even though he doesn’t understand the words, he extends a helping hand.
A letter he finds reveals that the orphaned blonde, blue-eyed waif who he starts calling Johanna had lived with the Kiowa tribe, but was being transported to an aunt and uncle in another town when the agent bringing her was lynched by locals. Not knowing what to do, Kidd tries to find someone to take care of her, but circumstances lead to them making the 400-mile horse and cart trip to her relatives together.
The language barrier remains a problem. “Odyssey”-like, other folks are met and interacted with along the way. Because he still has to make a living, there are stops to give readings to news-hungry crowds. He picks up more newspapers; she, an inquisitive little girl, picks through his meager belongings.
While not much is divulged about her history till near the end, little pieces of his background seep through. He’s a widower, he says at one point, but at another, that’s changed to, “I left a wife in San Antonio.” But the story here isn’t about him or her, it’s about them - about how they inevitably become closer, due to each explaining a little of their own language to the other, or maybe because of the dangers they face together as they ride and camp out, ride and camp out. There are rumors that the road to Castroville, where her aunt and uncle live, are bad, and those rumors aren’t about potholes, nor are they understatements. Among the unscrupulous people they meet are Mr. Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) and Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy). But there are also nice folks, including Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel) and John Calley (Fred Hechinger).
It all moves along at a leisurely pace, but there are bursts of violence (a tense, extended shoot-out in the hills is terrifically directed) mixed in with quiet, pastoral moments. Things get a little overly dramatic when they turn to a terrible accident, a time of hunger and thirst, and a kind of gratuitous dust storm sequence.
But the story comes to a satisfactory conclusion, all questions about the two main characters are answered, and viewers will agree that Hanks has given yet another distinguished performance.
“News of the World” will be available on VOD starting Jan. 15.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“News of the World”
Written by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies; directed by Paul Greengrass
With Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
This article originally appeared on Taft Midway Driller: Movie review: Tom Hanks expertly spreads the good (and bad) word in ‘News of the World’