The Civil War has ended, but the country’s wounds are still fresh. This is obvious to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks). He sees the divide, firsthand, as he rides through Texas towns delivering current events at public hearings. The clink of dimes falling into his tin cup pays his humble lifestyle. He spends the night in the local inn then moves on to the next town.
One day, the Captain stumbles upon a ransacked wagon. The only thing remaining is Johanna (Helena Zengel) — a young orphan of settlers. She has been raised by the Kiowa Indians and speaks no English, but the Captain feels the moral obligation to deliver Johanna to her surviving family. Their journey is fraught with danger, their communication is challenged, and their survival is dependent on each other.
News of the World immediately establishes the juxtaposition between booming young American cities and the ravage left behind by the Civil War. It shows the untamed land – both stunning and harrowing. The foundation of the film, however, is the developing relationship between the Captain and Johanna. Though she resists, the Captain helps Johanna and tries to teach her the basics of life, but in reality, he learns from her.
Along with its central plot, the film examines many topics that parallel today’s America: visceral politics, fake news, censorship, gun laws, racism, PTSD, and even human trafficking. It’s fascinating to see such a different America from the past struggling with the same problems of today. It takes a respectful approach, but the film tries to make so many points, it becomes oversaturated and minimizes the strength of its story — the two main characters. In its best moments, the film intimately watches the Captain and Johanna’s relationship develop. Whether it’s their exchange of English and Kiowan terms or the Captain patiently allowing Johanna to rummage through his belongings, their relationship rings true. It’s not easy, just like any relationship. Their pasts haunt them, but together, their future can be bright. Where the movie is weakest, is in its action. Whether it’s a traditional “Wild West” gunfight or a treacherous sandstorm, the excitement seems forced. There is constant peril in Westerns, but in this film, the action only takes away time with our lead characters.
Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Castaway) is excellent as always as Captain Kidd. He represents the good that can arise from tumultuous times. At times, he is practically reading from a phone book, and I still enjoyed every moment. Newcomer Helena Zengel seems completely damaged as Johanna. The trauma in her young life is reflected in her face, but when she smiles, rare as it may be, it warms your heart. Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) delivers his least Paul-Greengrassiest movie to date by replacing his often-used handheld, frantic camera movement with still, well-composed cinematography featuring blues and golds. It’s a beautiful film to watch. The film has a lot to say, but I think it would have benefitted by saying less and focusing on the kindness and compassion realized by the Captain and Johanna.