Producers: Gary Goetzman, Gail Mutrux and Gregory Goodman Director: Paul Greengrass Screenplay: Paul Greengrass and Luke Davis Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Michael Angelo Corvino, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel, Fred Hechinger, Bill Camp, Thomas Francis Murphy, Gabriel Ebert, Neils Sandilands, Winsome Brown, Clint Obenchain. Andy Kastelic, Clay James, Cash Lilley, Tom Astor, Jeffrey Ware, Chris Bylsma and Justin Tade Distributor: Universal
Director Paul Greengrass, best known for his adrenaline-rush style of filmmaking, chooses instead to mosey in his slimmed-down adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel, which jettisons a good deal of the book’s incident in fashioning a simple, affecting nineteenth-century road movie. The very different approach makes “News of the World” somewhat of an oddity among Greengrass’ films, though far from an unpleasant one.
Set in 1870, only a few years after the Civil War, the plot centers on Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a veteran deeply affected by what he witnessed during the conflict and by his own personal losses, particularly the death of his wife during his absence. Unwilling to return to his hometown of San Antonio, where he would have to confront the reality of her death, and unable to return to his old life as a printer, he’s taken up the unusual occupation of travelling newsreader, going from town to town in North Texas to regale paying crowds with stories appearing in newspapers from across the country. (Draw whatever comparisons you choose to how we get our news today.)
It’s during his journey from Wichita Falls toward Dallas that he encounters a horrible sight: an overturned wagon and, nearby, a lynched black man who had been transporting a ten-year old white girl named Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), captured and reared by the Kiowa long before but now rescued, to her only relatives, and aunt and uncle in Castroville, far to the south. Kidd tries to turn Johanna, who speaks no English wants nothing more than to return to the Kiowa, who are being compelled to leave their land, over to a passing troop of Union soldiers, but is bluntly told to take her to an Indian agent at Red River. When he learn that the agent will be gone for several months, Kidd is reluctantly forced to take care of her himself.
Kidd tries to leave Johanna with Simon and Doris Boudlin (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham), a kindly shopkeeping couple, but the girl will have none of it. So they continue to Dallas, where Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel), an innkeeper friend of the captain’s, uses her knowledge of Kiowa language to inform him of some of the details of the girl’s past (as well as her Kiowa name, Cicada). Afterwards the unlikely duo continue their journey, eventually reaching Castroville, where Kidd turns over the girl to Wilhelm and Anna Leonberger (Neils Sandilands and Winsome Brown) before proceeding to nearby San Antonio, where he finally makes peace with his past before returning to see how Johanna is dealing with her new home. Of course he finds that she is not acclimating, and takes her back to travel the news-reading route with him as his adoptive daughter; the final human-interest story he declaims is, fittingly, one about resurrection.
Of course if the journey were uneventful, the film could become little more than a well-meaning but stately bore. So Greengrass and his co-writer Luke Davis include some incidents from the book—like the failure of their wagon’s brake, which occasions a wreck and a long trek through the desert, ending in a ferocious dust storm from which they emerge barely alive, only to be rescued by the arrival of some Native American refugees who offer life-saving aid.
But there are also encounters with dangerous men. One introduces a sneering veteran named Almay (Michael Angelo Corvino), who wants to purchase Johanna in order to force her to become a prostitute, and when Kidd refuses chases them into the mountains, where, in a sequence that might remind you of the rock-cliff climax of James Stewart’s classic western “Winchester ‘73,” they use guile and cunning to dispatch Almay and his men.
Another is set in Erath County, where a powerful local kingpin named Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) and his sons have established a sinister domain of their own. Farley becomes infuriated when Kidd refuses to read from the self-serving screed he’s published about his triumph over outsiders, and the captain and Johanna are saved only by the intervention of young John Calley (Fred Hechinger), who turns against Farley and briefly becomes the duo’s traveling companion. (Calley’s later return in the novel is omitted here.)
The excitement provided by such episodes is, however, the exception rather than the rule in “News of the World.” For the most part this is a relatively quiet, thoughtful study of the growing affection between Kidd and Johanna, which leads to new lives for them both–essentially a two-hander that relies on solid performances by Hanks and Zengel. Kidd is not a role that’s very demanding of the former’s range—it depends largely on his innately humane, decent persona—but Hanks puts his ordinary-man soulfulness to good use in it. Zengel’s contribution is more surprising simply because she will be an unknown quantity to most viewers. She conveys the girl’s initial wildness and aching vulnerability beautifully and makes her cunning credible. She proves a more than capable partner for Hanks.
The supporting cast may have limited opportunity to shine, but all do what’s required of them expertly. Corvino and Murphy exude menace, while Hechinger is likable as aw-shucks Calley. Winningham and Marvel provide fleeting moments of maternal feeling, and even Sandilands and Brown are able in a few moments to express the Leonbergers’ inability to connect with Johanna as well as their determination to wring a life out of an unforgiving landscape. Bill Camp also turns up briefly as an old friend of Kidd’s in San Antonio, delivering a telling cameo.
The desolate beauty of the setting is caught well in Dariusz Wolski’s classically-composed cinematography, as well as the effective production design by David Crank and costumes of Mark Bridges, while William Goldenberg’s editing nicely juxtaposes the occasional action scenes with the film’s generally sedate tempo. A lush, big-boned score by James Newton Howard completes an impressive package.
“News of the World” may be a change of pace for Greengrass in many respects, but the sensitive, moving film is a journey of discovery well worth joining him and Hanks on.