Although “News of the World,” the new Tom Hanks western, now playing in theatres, is set almost 150 years ago its themes feel very contemporary. Racism, fake news and even fear of a pandemic are all essayed in this film based on Paulette Jiles’ bestselling 2016 novel of the same name.
Set five years after the end of the American Civil War, Hanks plays the elaborately named Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of three wars who now makes a living travelling from town to town doing theatrical live readings of the news of the day.
On one stop he’s offered money to return orphan Johanna (Helena Zengel) to relatives in San Antonio, a four-hundred-mile journey, fraught with danger. “She needs to laugh and dream,” Kidd says. “She needs new memories.”
Both are alone in the world; their families gone. He’s a widower, the 10-year-old was kidnapped years earlier, raised by the Kiowa people as one of their own and recently rescued by the U.S. army. “An orphan twice over.” She doesn’t speak English and, after being torn from the only two places she’s ever known as home, doesn’t trust anyone, especially her new guardian.
As they travel across the country, still divided by the recent war, Johana comes to trust Kidd as challenges, both natural and human, present themselves. Along the way the trip evolves into something more than a job for Kidd or simple survival, it becomes a journey to personal salvation for them both.
“News of the World” is a big, handsome period piece in the style of “True Grit” and “The Searchers” but without the suspense of either of those road movies. The odd couple pairing of Kidd and Johanna may seem strange at first, but it soon becomes clear, despite her unruly behavior, that they belong together. There is some nicely directed peril, courtesy of Paul Greengrass, but the likability Hanks brings to the role is reassuring… perhaps too reassuring.
Kidd is a man battered by war and personal trauma. He’s an imperfect man trying to be a good one in a broken and divided land. But he’s also Mister Rogers, so despite the character’s world weariness, there is never a feeling that he will do anything less than the right thing. It’s noble, but it is not the stuff of great drama.
The thing that does set “News of the World” from the pack is the prescient nature of the story. The world Kidd and Johanna exist in is a lawless one, and one that echoes many of today’s concerns. From human traffickers and a wannabe-small-town fascist to a horrifying lynching and fake news, the film makes it clear that venality and social ills that are part of our contemporary newscasts are a result of a long history of bitter division. The movie fights to find optimism in the story, and it is here that Hanks earns his money. It ends on notes of healing and redemption but the payoff, while satisfying, doesn’t feel worth the long journey.