“News of the World” is a western film in the old tradition. A good guy, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd played by Tom Hanks, fights forces of evil as he attempts to reunite a damsel in distress—well, a 10-year-old girl (played by Helena Zengel)—with her remaining biological family. The child had been taken in by the Kiowa people after her parents and sister were slaughtered in their Texas prairie home.
The year is 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War in which Kidd, who hailed from San Antonio, was a member of the Confederate Infantry. It was a turbulent time given that the state of Texas had not yet been readmitted to the Union and Union soldiers patrolled the roads and towns. Kidd eked out a modest living by traveling town to town presenting the current news to the town’s folks who paid him ten cents per person to hear him talk. Storyteller is what he is, gauging his audience’s prejudices and moods and tailoring how he presents the facts from the newspapers he carries with him.
Traveling to the next town, he comes across the wreckage of a wagon and a black man who has been hung in a nearby tree. There he finds a Caucasian girl in native American dress and her papers indicating her name (Johanna) and circumstance. A Union Army patrol appears and he shows his ID and the girl’s papers hoping that the leader will take the girl. Instead, the patrol leader tells him to take the child to a nearby town where the Bureau of Indian Affairs is handling such problems.
Throughout the film, obstacles arise with the kind of unrelenting frequency one encounters in today’s video games. Kidd tries to hand Johanna over to the officials in the town only to be told the officer in charge is away for three months. Knowing some teachers in this town, Kidd attempts to park Johanna with them so she can wait for the officer to return. That doesn’t work out either and Kidd decides he will take her to her aunt and uncle because he has some unresolved business in San Antonio which seems to be the wife he left there when he joined the war.
Among the situations Kidd finds himself in include a leering pedophile who wants to buy Johanna. When Kidd refuses, the miscreant swears he and his companions will come after them and kidnap her. The man makes good on his threat and during this harrowing encounter Kidd and Johanna bond. Johanna shows her intelligence and her mettle. Little by little Kidd finds a way to communicate with his charge who seems only to speak Kiowa.
Some of what happens to them on this extremely difficult trip seems hard to accept that they didn’t die or get so injured that they couldn’t keep going. However, as stated in the introduction to this review, this is a western in the old tradition. The audience takes these Paul-Bunyan-like impossibilities in stride. We want the boulder that Kidd and Johanna push off a cliff to stop the pedophile and his men to make a difference. When Kidd empties the shell casing of its buckshot to show Johanna it is useless and won’t save them, we want the coins she retrieves from their abandoned wagon and that she stuffs into the shell casing to kill the pedophile. It seems preposterous but this is that kind of mythically large story.
Hanks does a credible job of portraying Captain Kidd, a man who has a moral compass during a time when few around him had any values of human kindness, given the pervasive issues of racism both against Black and indigenous peoples. This is a film speaking to issues of our current day. While Hanks is our hero, Helena Zengel steals the spotlight. This thirteen-year-old German actress shines in this role. She gets to capitalize on her German roots because Johanna’s slain family were German speakers and she starts to remember her natal language as she grew more comfortable with Captain Kidd. Moreover, Zengel is able to convey that Johanna (or Cicada as she tells the name she prefers to a Kiowa-speaking woman Kidd knows) is no innocent to death and the struggle to stay alive. After Kidd succeeds in killing the pedophile and his two partners, the girl imprints notice on the flank of one of Kidd’s horses that he has killed three people.
It may be that the rapidity of setbacks taking place in this lush cinematic landscape streams by too fast for the casual viewer to absorb the subtleties of this film. Throughout the film, the viewer should wonder about Kidd’s wife and what and who he was prior to the Civil War. The answers make a huge difference in how this film ends.
“News of the World” has received four nominations for Oscars: Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Sound. The Golden Globes have nominated Helena Zengel as Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture.
Find this film on: Netflix, Amazon Prime
Karren LaLonde Alenier, Washington, DC