Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
NEWS OF THE WORLD
Many folks would pay good money to hear Tom Hanks read the phonebook in his compelling, cozy, and comforting timbre. On a superficial level, his work in NEWS OF THE WORLD is as close as we’ll get to that, seeing him play a traveling newsman who reads to townsfolk for a meager wage. While director Paul Greengrass’ film, an adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ novel of the same name, contains deeply layered, stirring themes and resonant character dynamics, it’s the affable actor’s poignant, refined performance that delivers new colors to their complex shading. It also doubles as a return to the sharp, incisive Westerns of classic Hollywood. Greengrass and company have given us all the news that’s fit to film.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) has a few scars on his body that tell a story of fighting and warfare. The Civil War veteran is now a peaceful man who travels from town to town, reading the news to those who need to hear it the most. With his papers stacked neatly in front of him on a makeshift podium, he holds court nightly for a dime, acting as a captivating emcee, capturing the townsfolk’s attention with true tales of escapism and enlightenment. Kidd is seeking to deliver inspiration to those who need it and looking for hope in world that’s granted him none. He’s chosen this lonely life of isolation as a makeshift drifter, whose career gives him purpose as he tries to escape the curse of a past trauma.
However, Kidd’s world shifts once he discovers a young girl hiding in the wild while headed to his next reading engagement. Johanna (Helena Zengel), a fair-skinned, tow-headed spitfire clad in buckskin dress and hollering in Kiowa, was en route to find home when she encountered folks who lynched her companion and left her stranded. She doesn’t speak English, so her papers tell Kidd of her backstory: she’s an orphan who was kidnapped by the Kiowa when she was younger and raised as one of their own. He’s told by cavalry to take her to the closest town, but once he’s there, he discovers the agent who would take Johanna to her last living relatives won’t return for 3 months. He tries to leave with local friends, but the almost-feral child rebels against assimilation. Kidd is compelled to take her himself, across 400 miles of treacherous territory.
Greengrass and co-screenwriter Luke Davies do a great job establishing both characters in essentially a two-hander. Kidd’s nightly routine shows how he enraptures the crowd, capturing their attention with the selected stories. This also serves as meta-commentary on the power of storytelling. He quells tempers, putting angry folks on common ground with their alleged enemies. Later, when he’s threatened and ordered to read propaganda, we see how he can carefully pivot the conversation and galvanize its participants. Johanna is a girl caught between two worlds – one where she presents as Caucasian (representing colonialism), and the other where she was raised as an Indigenous person. She’s grief-stricken over the abandonment she’s faced in her past, a quality Kidd recognizes and responds to immediately given his own previous travails. Their relationship feels earned and packs a wallop, particularly in the clarifying, crystalizing crescendo of the third act.
Other friends and foes make appearances throughout, but those serve to brilliantly complement Kidd and Johanna’s arcs. Kind-hearted deeds mirror the beauty set amongst the cruel realities, from the Boudlins (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham), who help set them up with supplies for travel by wagon, to Mrs. Gannett ( Elizabeth Marvel), who also has suffered loss and helps translate between the two travelers. Adversaries provide the intense conflicts that arise, like local lothario Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) and his gang of ne’er do wells, who want to buy Johanna for nefarious purposes, and Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), the tyrannical, sadistic leader of an unincorporated county. They also provide the avenues by which we see the two work together to extricate themselves from danger.
Pacing is never an issue. Though it takes its time steeping us in the wild west’s gorgeous, sweeping vistas (with New Mexico as the stand-in for Texas), the film moves briskly. Those landscapes reflect the expansive emotional spectrum Kidd and Johanna must cross to reach their own personal fulfillment. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography soars in the relaxed, contemplative corners of this picture. Action sequences, like the pursuit into the rocky hillside, the skedaddle from Erath County, and the wagon’s inevitable final demise, are all capably shot and assembled. As with many a film in Greengrass’ oeuvre, the camera is handheld, but it’s less shaky-cam than normal. This technique emphasizes the characters’ steadied hands and focused aims. James Newton Howard’s sonically poetic score fills in the cracks in a non-intrusive manner when dialogue is sparse.
Hanks is the draw, with his pathos and gravitas on full display. He’s also not afraid to portray a hero who gets his hands dirty, exploring all the intricate facets of Kidd’s deep-rooted pain. Yet it’s Zengel who’s a revelation. She nails Johanna’s stunted growth, spirit, and suffering with a wise sense of depth and dimension. She has a lot to shoulder in carrying the narrative, and she does so astutely.
NEWS OF THE WORLD opens in theaters on December 25.