“News of the World” is a stately, almost old-fashioned Western saga about a widowed Civil War veteran trying to do right by one orphaned girl in 1870 Texas. There are hints of “The Searchers” in this quest to take a child “home,” and a whiff of Mark Twain’s story and attitudes in its tale of a well-spoken man making his way by doing readings from the world’s newspapers as entertainment to the locals.
And in the hands of Tom Hanks and his “Captain Phillips” director, Paul Greengrass, this adaptation of a Paulette Jiles novel becomes a Western parable for these “troubled times,” a story of race and unrepentant racism, men of violence who won’t give up that violence and the power of a free press to rectify that.
Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kirby Kidd, late of the Third Texas Infantry, a man who has to travel his own “Blue Bellies” (Federal troops) occupied state with a copy of his “Loyalty Oath.” The “late unpleasantness” is an open sore in unreconstructed Texas.
His readings in towns too small for a newspaper or otherwise limited in their news (“low information voters”) come from The Carthage Banner and The Clifton Record, The Dallas Herald, The Times of India and the New York Times. The stories, which haven’t trickled to Wichita Falls and the like, draw gasps, applause and bursts of outrage.
But weathered, white-bearded Captain Kidd has learned how to work a crowd, stirring the heart or calming troubled waters.
The last thing this solitary man needs is trouble on the trail, which is just what he gets when he stops at a wrecked wagon. The Black trooper who drove it has been lynched. And the soldier’s cargo is a blonde girl (Helena Zengel) rescued by troops when they slaughtered the Indian tribe that took her as a hostage years before after slaughtering her family.
She is wild, if not quite feral, speaking only Kiowa and snatches of German she remembers. Captain Kidd tries to pass her off to the Feds, but they’d just as soon he take her to her folks in Castroville, 400 miles away.
Along the way, he will consult with old acquaintances (Elizabeth Marvel, Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham), try to carry on making a living and face the “dangers” of the road in largely-lawless post-War central Texas.
“Bushwhackers,” veterans turned outlaws, weren’t limited to Missouri. And everywhere the “Blue Bellies” aren’t, informal militias with guns cling to their grudges, their prejudices, their power and their treason, enforcing their will by violence.
Hanks mercifully spares us his “Ladykillers” Southern accent. He’s here for what his screen presence has come to represent — decency. Kidd isn’t a gunslinger or violent Western archetype. He’s a man who realizes, reaching out to this child he has a hard time understanding, that “we both have demons to face” from their past.
Zengel throws herself into “gone native,” allowing the audience and Kidd to underestimate her. Hanks has one perfectly understated moment recognizing that as the girl Johanna reasons a way to make an ambush on the trail more of a fair fight.
But Captain Kidd isn’t here to “clean up” this or that violent town, but inform the masses. And if that entails sewing dissent among the oppressed, uninformed and brainwashed, that’s his version of heroism.
Thomas Francis Murphy, Clint Obenchain and Christopher Hagen make memorable impressions as heavies. McKinnon (“Ford v. Ferrari”) lends Southern authenticity to the proceedings. And Marvel, who played the adult Maddie Ross in the “True Grit” remake, brings an earthy sparkle to the old friend of Kidd’s who runs a boarding house and never got over the bitterness of a husband who ran off to California. Marvel’s husband, star character actor Bill Camp, has a cameo.
But the person in this production who transcends his reputation is Greengrass, known for his stunning “Bourne” action beats and pointillistic rat-at-tat editing. He slows his pacing down to a slow canter, showing us scenic vistas and unblinking ugliness — buffalo slaughter and the like. But he also gives himself to the genre’s conventions, staging a classic shoot-out on a rocky hill — a staple of virtually every Western ever — in ways that give away that everyone involved, save for the little girl, has been to war, knows how to advance on and outflank an entrenched foe.
The filmmaker and his stars haven’t reinvented the genre with this Western allegory. The fortunate thing for us is their realizing they didn’t need to.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Ray McKinnon, Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, Thomas Francis Murphy and Bill Camp.
Credits: Directed by Paul Greengrass, script by and Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on the Paulette Jiles novel. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:58