Westerns come in all shapes, times, tones, and more, but the most traditional find violence around the late 19th century in the decades following the Civil War. The nation was armed, still expanding, and eternally angry — at each other, at Native Americans, at strangers, and at the land itself — and it’s into this environment that News of the World drops viewers. Paul Greengrass‘ latest follows two loners in a fractured world who find a way forward with each other, and while it feels somewhat incomplete it manages enough heart and humanity to make it a journey worth taking.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels the rural territories reading newspapers from other places for ignorant and tired populaces. He makes a living, barely, but it allows him the opportunity — and the excuse — to postpone his return home ever longer. His travels are interrupted when he comes upon a ransacked wagon, a dead man hanging from a tree, and a young girl hiding in the brush. A German immigrant stolen by a raiding party as a toddler, she was raised by the Kiowa tribe as one of their own, but after they themselves were slaughtered by U.S. soldiers she was in the process of being transported to her only remaining relatives down in Texas. No system exists to transport her safely, so Kidd takes it upon himself to return Johanna (Helena Zengel) home. It won’t be an easy journey, but it will be an enlightening one for all involved.
News of the World reunites Greengrass and Hanks with a decidedly different drama from their masterful Captain Phillips (2013), but while it lacks that film’s emotional catharsis it still finds heart on the frontier. The journey is fraught with dangers and life or death decisions, and its small conflicts reflect the fractured state of the nation. Turns out hoping for something better eventually requires you to take action in that direction.
Paulette Jiles‘ novel is adapted here by Greengrass and Luke Davies, and both the journey and the themes make the move to the screen even as some relationships and outcomes are scuttled or blended together. The core remains, though, as both Kidd and Johanna are people scarred by their past and currently without a place to call home. The trip bonds them in quiet times and violent ones, but their combined fates remain uncertain until the end due as much to outer threats as to their own inner realities. The country is broken and ruled with division, and these two move through it with an initial uncertainty — he’s reading the news of the world, but together they’re carrying a small portion of the hope and humanity for a world seemingly incapable of finding either.
The glimpses of a broken America are everywhere in News of the World, from random street violence to hate-fueled militia men still furious over the recent war to others desperate and uncaring enough to sell Johanna into prostitution. There is good too, though, primarily in Kidd but also in some of those they pass through. Elizabeth Marvel makes a memorable turn as Mrs. Gannett, an educated and caring hotel owner who shares a bed with Kidd despite knowing he’ll never call it home. Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham make a brief appearance as a couple whose help is offered and sincere even if it’s ineffectual.
It’s Hanks and Zengel who shine, though, with the mostly silent little girl often stealing the light from the consummate professional. He brings his expected softness to a character who’s known grief and loss and now wants only the noise of other people’s stories, but he’s quick to action when circumstances call for it. Zengel, meanwhile, gets across more with her quiet expressions than many actors do with mountains of dialogue. Together they’re an odd couple who discover their need for each other, and the warmth the pair emits is almost enough to fight back the chill of cold nights spent fighting the landscape and its myriad threats.
Frequent Ridley Scott cinematographer Dariusz Wolski captures both the beauty and the horror of a nation and people at odds with themselves, and he and Greengrass turn the film’s handful of action skirmishes into thrilling pockets of tension amid the drama. The action is minimal, though, as News of the World is a western more interested in character and big ideas than it is in gun fights. That intent leaves the film feeling a bit slight at times as the pair’s journey from A to B hits only minor (in the grand scheme of things) hiccups to its end, and the film ultimately concludes as a simple, effective character piece with a necessary and timeless message — all we have is each other.