c 2023 by Jan MacKell Collins
Call me late (just never call me late for dinner, yuk yuk), but I just now got around to watching “News of the World,” starring Tom Hanks and a young German actress, Helena Zengel. It is true, this film came out in 2020. The plot centers on an 1800’s Civil War veteran who travels the west, bringing news to those without the benefit of such newfangled inventions of the future like television, radio and the internet. Ironic is that as late as I am giving my two cents about this picture, Hanks’ character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, reads current and past events from newspapers that are actually months old by the time he reaches his various destinations. That said, I’m forgiving myself for taking so long to watch it.
I liked this film on multiple levels. For one thing, it brings to the forefront the unique fact that in the old west, there really were men who traipsed from town to town, bringing news and editorials to people who lived in remote areas. You don’t think Americans learned all at once that the Civil War was over, do you? They certainly didn’t, and even telegraphed messages – the fastest form of communication at the time which relied on Morse code – could only relay so much information at a time. Author Paulette Giles, whose book of the same name serves as the basis for this movie, was wise to set her story in the post-Civil War years when not everyone got the same message at the same time.
So, on to the story. Captain Kidd is rambling around doing his thing when he comes across an overturned coach. The only passenger appears to be a young girl (Zengel, in her first American role). Nearby, the Black driver of the coach has been lynched. As for the child, she is of German descent with blonde hair, a wide face and piercing sky-blue yes. Her name is Johanna. But the child speaks only Kiowa, owing to the fact that she was taken from her home after her parents were murdered sometime in the past. But her adopted Kiowa parents are dead too. What to do?
In so many westerns, grappling with the idea of a man coming across a child in need (think 1972’s “Jeremiah Johnson,” 1975’s “Against a Crooked Sky,” 1969’s “True Grit” and its 2010 remake, to name a few) has been regarded as a burden. How can you be a badass, or even a normal guy, doing what you need to survive, when you are suddenly encumbered by a child? In this case, Kidd has the wherewithal, and common sense, to see that it is his responsibility to take Johanna to the place she belongs: the home of her long lost kin. Doing so will require riding some rough roads strewn with highwaymen and other outlaws. On the back burner too are Kidd’s memories of his wife, whom he has not seen since he left for the war years before. But duty is duty as far as he is concerned, and he must deliver this little lost girl to the proper destination before moving on.
This is the part where I want to point out the virtues of Tom Hanks’ first role in a real, gritty, period western. We all know Tom, boy do we. He long ago mastered the art of his craft, with a slew of films illustrating the depth of his talent. These days, at the still-young age of 64, the actor himself has become almost a father-like figure in the film industry. But while other reviews have nailed him for acting like typical Tom Hanks in a Tom Hanks film, I didn’t care. I appreciated the aging Captain Kidd’s neutral approach to the task at hand. He reads his newspapers in a way that reminds me of the late Paul Harvey’s news commentaries, with a delivery that makes people automatically trust what he has to say. He is a voice of reason when his listeners vehemently object to the news he reads. In dealing with young Johanna, whose trust must be gained in order for the pair to survive, Kidd knows he must employ as much prudence as he can. If Hanks could not carry this role, I don’t know who could have done a better job.
One of the most poignant parts of the story is seeing how real the struggle is for Kidd’s conscience. He does not call the girl “Cicada,” her Kiowa name, and he is bent on returning her to her blood family, not the Natives she is obviously now more comfortable with. But when Johanna chirps out her sing-song words in Kiowa tongue, and employs survival skills she learned from the tribe, the conflict in Kidd’s face is genuine. And when she instinctively blurts out a German sentence, Kidd obviously feels even more uncomfortable. It is never spoken, but beautifully conveyed, that this man is truly torn between which of the worlds Johanna has lived in is the best one for her. Yet he knows how important it is for him to learn her words and teach her his, because communication is among the most vital survival skills this pair can share.
“News of the World” was filmed in New Mexico. It is a refreshing change to so many movie and shows that have lately fled film-unfriendly America to Canada in favor of more accommodating film commissions. I know New Mexico, and recognized a couple of sets, which gave this movie a comforting, familiar feel. The scenery is, as usual, beautiful. The costumes, sets, firearms, and most everything else used to make the film are authentic. The dialogue is flavorful. And for those who feel the storyline is a bit slow, I’m here to tell you that the wild west was not always wild. It could, on many levels, move at a very unhurried, steady pace that was akin to most lifestyles of the time. In our hurry-hurry world, that’s not really such a bad thing. So sit back, turns the lights low, and be willing to ride along the deliberate, often emotional path this story takes. You won’t be sorry.
Image courtesy IMDB.