The publicity for western News of The World has been relatively subdued – while the film had a modest cinema release in The States, it comes straight to Netflix internationally. As such, many people might see the film in their streaming queues and wonder if there’s an old Tom Hanks movie that passed them by. They need not worry, however, as this is the latest drama from everyone’s favourite Oscar winner, reuniting with his Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass.
This adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ novel is set in 1870, as America heals itself in the aftermath of The Civil War. Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Confederate soldier who now travels from town-to-town reading newspapers from across the country to paying audiences. Travelling between engagements, he comes across an upturned Native American wagon with everyone on it dead except for a young girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel).
Johanna is European but from her speech and dress appears to have been taken in by a Native American community. Unable to speak each other’s language, Captain Kidd takes charge of the girl and is instructed by Union Army officials to bring her back to her remaining family. However, many physical and personal obstacles stand between them and home.
A common complement to pay a performer is that you would watch them read the phonebook. The very first scene in Greengrass’ film makes it clear that we’d happily pay to watch Hanks read the papers. The director uses the warmth that radiates from the actor as an anchor for this tender story of finding comfort on the harsh frontier. His unique appeal stems from his ability to portray ordinary men in the middle of extraordinary times, immediately endearing you to Kidd and the task ahead of him.
Equally as interesting is young co-star Zengel, who has to put across Johanna’s rage and vulnerability without being understood verbally. This results in a great physical performance, telling the story of someone whose upbringing means she sees her own family as outsiders. In her, Greengrass exemplifies the fractious nature of this New America – embattled and misplaced communities struggling to find identity in the lines that have been drawn. This young white girl, raised as a Native American and now forced to re-join her birth family, has some parallels with former Union and Confederate enemies now trying to unite their country.
Chiefly, however, it is a story of two lost souls finding their way home. There are shoot outs with criminals and a mini mutiny inspired by Kidd refusing to read news doctored by a town’s owner, but the film’s most compelling moments come from Kidd reconciling with his past, and growing close to his young companion. As the modestly paced film goes on, you’re willing this surrogate father-daughter to rescue each other from the pain that follows them.
Those expecting the high-octane thrillers Greengrass became famous for will be in for a surprise, as News Of The World is a quietly intriguing film, told at a gentle pace. Nevertheless, it has enough hard-hitting moments to make the final act fulfilling, and two great performances that fill the screen with soul.
News Of The World Is Available on Netflix from 10th February.