Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Angelo Covino, Bill Camp
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 4 of 5
Even as most studios have pushed back their year-end prestige pictures, Universal Pictures has given theaters a gorgeously cinematic attraction, starring none other than America’s preeminent leading man, Tom Hanks. Here, Hanks re-teams with his “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass for an adaptation of Paulette Jiles’s novel. In a career full of great roles, Tom Hanks’ sensitive performance in “News of the World” is one of his best.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) is a Civil War veteran traveling through North Texas in 1870. His profession is an unusual one. He ventures from town-to-town and reads aloud newspapers. While riding out of Wichita Falls, he comes across a lost young German girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel), who only speaks Kiowa. Reading through the travel manifest of her African-American escort (who has been hanged, presumably by neo-Confederates), Kidd gathers that Johanna was kidnapped by Native Americans several years prior, and having now been rescued, was being transported to her aunt and uncle in Castroville.
Thus begins Kidd’s journey to return Johanna to her family – which isn’t an easy one, considering that Johanna is a deeply traumatized and rambunctious child. Although the film’s primary focus is the relationship between Kidd and Johanna, “News of the World” tackles quite a bit more. The movie is quite perceptive about the tensions in the South following the Civil War.
Rather than give in to Southern resentment about the outcome of the war, Kidd attempts to unite a divided nation by making his fellow Southerners aware of their commonalities with Northerners. This is never more apparent than in an extraordinary mid-film sequence, in which Kidd and Johanna stumble upon a backwoods community led by the nefarious demagogue Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who uses the townsfolk as his personal laborers.
The situation gets particularly tense when Farley hands Kidd his local news bulletin full of sensationalist lies and asks him to read it aloud to a mob of laborers who have bought into Farley’s delusions of grandeur. Kidd faces a tough decision here. Throughout the film, he’s faced with the thankless task of simultaneously appeasing embittered white Southerners and offering these same people a glimpse into other worlds.
He recognizes the monumental rift between the North and South and seeks to assert a common truth that both sides can agree on. There’s nothing more dangerous than two groups of people within one country living in separate realities, and it’s here that “News of the World” joins this year’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” as a period film with unmistakable relevance to our times.
With its western milieu, the director’s penchant for staging thrilling and uneasy action scenes reveals itself in a mid-film shootout. This heart-stopping gunfight is as tense as anything Greengrass has ever filmed, and it’s also an excellent demonstration of character-building through action. As Kidd fights back against criminals attempting to kidnap Johanna, the young girl sees the lengths to which he’ll go to protect her. In turn, Johanna aids Kidd and the shootout ultimately serves as an elegant way to bring these two characters closer together.
By the time Kidd arrives in Castroville to deliver Johanna to her aunt and uncle, Greengrass adopts a more introspective tone, as both Kidd and Johanna face the ghosts of their pasts. The third act doesn’t so much seek to thrill as it does reflect, and it’s a strong choice for such a richly emotional movie.
The film is currently playing in cinemas all across Austin and will be available on demand later in January. If you’re taking the appropriate safety precautions and feel comfortable going to a cinema, this movie looks truly incredible on the big screen. The film is rated PG-13 for some violence, none of which is particularly graphic. I would recommend it for ages ten and above.
Review by Jack Kyser, a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.