The balm of the storyteller is central to the work of Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an ex-infantryman who travels from town to town in Texas five years after the Civil War, for a modest fee reading lively accounts of events from both nearby and far afield to people in need of healing. That same spirit informs Paul Greengrass’ News of the World, an epic Western with an intimate gaze that recalls The Searchers and True Grit, providing Tom Hanks with one of his best roles since the same director’s Captain Phillips.
In many ways the Universal release is a venture into more conventionally handsome, stately, even old-fashioned prestige-picture territory for a director better known for his propulsive, viscerally charged action. But that doesn’t make the textured canvas of evocative Americana any less affecting. Essentially a two-hander though enlivened by incisive secondary character turns along the way, it’s a drama made with tremendous feeling, an unhurried, contemplative tale peppered with nail-biting set-pieces. Despite its setting 150 years ago, it carries soothing resonance at a time of bitter national divisions, when cultural otherness has been demonized and the value of news reporting under attack.
Adapted by Greengrass and Luke Davies (Lion) from the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, the story is one of strangers finding communion and mutual comfort, two people whose families have been torn apart by conflict, bound together by circumstance and then by a growing trust as their shared sense of loss becomes apparent. It benefits immeasurably from the constantly shifting dynamic between Hanks’ Captain Kidd and Helena Zengel, the young discovery from last year’s System Crasher, as 10-year-old Johanna, a German immigrant raised by the Kiowa people since her parents were killed six years earlier.
One of the news stories read by the captain from his traveling case full of papers concerns the Pacific Railroad’s decision to open a new line from the Kansas border all the way to Galveston, marking the first train to pass through what were then called Indian reservations. The rugged landscape of dusty plains and hill country was shot in New Mexico by Dariusz Wolski in spare, striking widescreen compositions with a painterly eye, in contrast to the gritty hand-held agility of the town scenes. The expansive vistas are a mostly empty space, serene at times, at others exposed to dangers both human and elemental. Those threats are magnified for Captain Kidd when he finds himself in the unaccustomed position of caring for a child.
A somber man in his 60s, the captain is fastidious about his appearance for his live readings, taking his role seriously as a service-provider to hard-working people still struggling to grasp the losses of the war, figure out where they stand in the new America and accept the federal mandate that they do their part in the recovery effort. Kidd is an empathetic voice who tries to soothe their rancor. “We’re all hurting,” he tells the crowd.
Hanks has built a career out of playing thoroughly decent men, so his casting here is entirely to type. But the soulfulness and sorrow, the innate compassion that ripple through his characterization make this an enormously pleasurable performance to watch, with new depths of both kindness and regret that keep revealing themselves.
Riding out from Wichita Falls in 1870, he follows a trail of blood to a tree where a Black man has been lynched, a handbill tacked to the dead man’s shirt reading, “Texas Says No! This is White Man’s Country.” He chases down the terrified Johanna not far from the scene. Retrieving government paperwork from the wrecked wagon on which she was traveling, Kidd learns she is being taken, against her will, to live with her biological aunt and uncle on their farm near San Antonio. Passing lawmen shrug off responsibility for the girl, instructing the captain to take her to the Indian Agency representative at Red River.
That task begins a lyrical odyssey over hundreds of miles, in which the reluctant newsman and the unpredictable wild child bounce from place to place as one temporary solution after another fails to work out.
Johanna proves too uncontrollable for a shopkeeper couple (Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham) who agree to look after her. But Dallas innkeeper Mrs. Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel, wonderful as always) speaks some Kiowa; she extracts the basics of the girl’s story from her, learning that her Native American family were killed by soldiers. She’s “an orphan twice over” who no longer has a home to go to. The violence embedded in the soil of a country where “settlers are killing Indians for their land and Indians are killing settlers for taking it” gives the movie a brooding undertow.
Greengrass and editor William Goldenberg establish an undulating rhythm that pulls you in, enhanced by James Newton Howard’s boldly flavorful symphonic score, with its rootsy acoustic string elements. The action ambles along in leisurely character observation as the captain and Johanna overcome their mutual incomprehension and wariness in conversations with no common language. Her attachment to the Kiowa culture of her upbringing, elements of which are revealed casually at first and then voluntarily shared with the captain as a gift, provides several poignant interludes as he responds with fascination to her connectedness with the natural world.
The tranquility is intermittently broken by alarming reminders of human depravity. The first of two chilling encounters is with predatory former Confederate soldier Almay (Michael Angelo Covino, making his compulsive jerk in The Climb seem like an angel) and his “associates” (Clay James, Cash Lilley), who offer to buy the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl for their own nefarious purposes. When the captain refuses, a pulse-pounding chase ensues that climaxes in a shootout in the rocky hills, where Kidd’s cool-headed logic and Johanna’s quick-thinking toughness go up against the traffickers’ impulsive cockiness. The expertly choreographed sequence has physical echoes of a face-off in another memorable recent Western, Hell or High Water.
A second menace arises when they travel through a lawless settlement of renegades lorded over by the sinister Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), who crows that his men have run off Indians, Mexicans and Blacks to take the area. The spiritual dimension of Johanna’s formation is evident as she quietly surveys the slaughtered buffalo lining the camp, singing to herself in hushed, mournful tones. In an amusing parallel to our own era of propagandistic news media, Farley insists that the captain entertain his men with a reading, then gets enraged by Kidd’s refusal to share the skewed accounts of his exploits from his self-published newsletter.
Among the characters whose lives are touched by the captain and Johanna along their journey, Fred Hechinger makes a tender impression as John Calley, a slow-witted but sweet-natured lad whose eyes are opened to Farley’s cruelty. Bill Camp also makes a welcome late appearance as a trusted old attorney friend of the captain’s back in San Antonio, where he goes to “make things right” with his wife, at Mrs. Gannett’s urging.
Matching Hanks beat for beat in a performance at times preternaturally poised, elsewhere feral and volatile, Zengel is riveting — raw and vulnerable but with surprising strength as she revisits the trauma of her past. Kidd’s mission to bring life from the outside world to isolated, suffering people is in part a role of atonement, of judgement “for all I had seen and all I had done” as a veteran of three wars. While he believes in the imperative to keep moving forward, Johanna teaches him that it’s important first to remember.
The touching story of these two refugees of a divided country is entirely different in mood and tempo from anything Greengrass has done up to now. With its painstakingly detailed production and costume design and stirring sense of time and place, this is a lovingly crafted drama that conveys a gentle message about examining the pain of our past to find a place of peace, belonging and even joy in our future.