Notes on News of the World: Tom Hanks in a Western, reportedly the first he’s ever appeared in. He plays Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Confederate war veteran who now, five years after the Civil War has ended, makes a living riding from town to town in his native Texas, reading random articles from his stash of newspapers to paying audiences. The crowds—all of them white and presumably illiterate—usually gasp in amazement at stories of epidemics and fires. But they boo lustily on hearing the name of President Ulysses S. Grant. They hate Yankees, especially the Union soldiers currently occupying Texas, who routinely stop the locals and frisk them for banned firearms.
It’s shown that Texans in 1871 actively defy the Emancipation Proclamation. They refuse to give up their slaves, and early in the film the captain comes across a lynched Black man hanging from a tree. Soon after that he discovers a curious refugee—a blond-haired preteen girl, dressed in buckskins, who seemingly speaks only the Kiowa dialect.
She was taken by that Native tribe after they murdered her family a few years ago, and now thinks and acts like a Kiowa—although after being temporarily adopted on the trail by the captain she begins to remember phrases in German. Kiowa name: Cicada, daughter of Turning Water and Three-Spotted. Birth name: Johanna Leonberger. Capt. Kidd takes it as his mission to deliver this frightened child (played with startling authenticity by juvenile actor Helena Zengel) to her aunt and uncle in Castroville, not far from the captain’s hometown of San Antonio. As they travel together, facing various dangers, they naturally begin to bond.
Let’s be honest; after reading the short synopsis of News of the World we were expecting yet another flavor of the familiar old cheese that Hanks has been selling for years. That is, another heroic yarn in which the actor gets to haul out the noblest instincts of the human race and display them proudly, against all odds. Frankly, that’s a fair description of the film, which was adapted by director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Luke Davis, from a novel by Paulette Jiles. The captain grudgingly, then wholeheartedly, assumes responsibility for Johanna, and in turn she slowly warms up to him after they save each others’ lives.
Hanks’ debut oater has one or two dimensions that help it overcome some of the more obvious clichés. Filmmaker Greengrass, the U.K.-based maker of ripped-from-the-headlines thrillers set in Northern Ireland (Bloody Sunday) and Norway (22 July), and the 9/11 terrorist adventure United 93—as well as three actioners from the Bourne franchise—thrives on stories of ordinary people caught up in violent events. Capt. Kidd and Johanna’s odyssey across Texas echoes present-day tensions in the U.S. They encounter anti-government, white supremacist militias and visit the abandoned, blood-spattered homestead where the girl was first kidnapped. Later on, they observe a large group of Native Americans on a forced march to their new reservation, after being driven from their land by soldiers.
In his second appearance for Greengrass—he was Captain Phillips, captured by Somali pirates—Hanks’ character operates in his customary comfort zone: courageous under fire yet saddled with regrets, the very picture of responsible leadership, i.e., self-congratulatory standard-brand Hanks. John Ford’s The Searchers, which shares similar plot elements with News, is essentially the portrait of a haunted, violent man obsessed with vengeance, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards. Compared to that, Hanks’ well-meaning Captain Kidd might as well be Captain Underpants.
But it’s newcomer Zengel who steals the show as the “savage” child who has lived through more than her share of cruelty and hardship. The 12-year-old Berliner, who began her acting career in TV movies at age five, brings a tragic air of the unpredictable/unknowable to her stateside debut. We walk away from News of the World wondering what will happen next to this wild waif. The Captain we’re not so worried about.
“News of the World” opens in theaters Dec. 25.