Tom Hanks may be getting a little weary of his designated role as America’s surrogate dad, but it fits him perfectly in the appealingly old-fashioned Western News of the World, which reunites Hanks with Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass. Greengrass is known for the gritty immediacy of both his fact-based dramas like Captain Phillips, United 93 and Bloody Sunday and his Jason Bourne action movies, but he works in a more sedate, classical style on News of the World, only occasionally employing the shaky-cam aesthetic that has become his trademark.
Based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, News of the World is set in 1870 Texas, where former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kidd (Hanks) travels from town to town with a satchel full of newspapers from around the country, sharing both fascinating local stories and momentous news from a nation in transition. Kidd is folksy and friendly but also haggard and melancholy, carrying the weight of his service in multiple wars and his regrets over a damaged personal life. While on the road from one town to another, he comes across a wrecked wagon and a murdered driver, who had been transporting a young girl across the state.
Kidd finds the scared 10-year-old girl (Helena Zengel) huddling in the woods, and his attempts to communicate with her are met with hostile glares. Paperwork inside the wagon tells Kidd that the girl’s name is Johanna Leonberger, the daughter of German immigrants who were killed by Kiowa raiders. The tribe kidnapped Johanna and raised her as their own, but after the U.S. Army attacked the Kiowa and killed Johanna’s adopted family, she’s now set to be returned to an aunt and uncle she’s never met, her only remaining living relatives. As Kidd’s Kiowa-speaking innkeeper friend puts it, Johanna is an orphan twice over.
The U.S. government doesn’t seem to care much about doing right by Johanna, so Kidd reluctantly agrees to take a perilous 400-mile journey to bring her home, while continuing to ply his storytelling trade along the way. It’s not hard to predict that the closed-off Kidd and the angry Johanna will eventually warm to each other and form a strong bond, or that they’ll face intolerance and danger along the way. But Hanks is a pro at making these noble, upstanding characters feel like real people, and the young Zengel (a German actress making her American debut) holds her own opposite the veteran star.
Greengrass stages one impressively tense sequence about halfway through the movie, as Kidd and Johanna are tracked by a trio of outlaws who are determined to take the exotic young girl and sell her to a brothel. It’s a classic Western shoot-out in the hills, with both parties trading the high ground as they fire at each other and look for ways to outflank and outmaneuver. Greengrass knows how to construct an action scene, but News of the World is more of a contemplative drama than an action movie. The menacing criminals are important mainly for the way that they bring Kidd and Johanna closer together, each further understanding the other despite their language barrier (taken as a young child, Johanna now only speaks Kiowa).
The characters and the movie amble toward a predetermined resolution, and even if the outcome is never in doubt, it’s still easy to get a little misty-eyed at how this makeshift father-daughter bond has grown. The darkness hinted at in Kidd’s past is explained but never fully explored, with a vague, soft-pedaled approach to his Confederate service. The movie relies a little too much on Hanks’ inherent warmth and likability to give the character more dimensions than he has in the screenplay (co-written by Greengrass and Luke Davies). There’s nothing here to rival the gut-punch of the final scene in Captain Phillips, in which another stoic but traumatized captain reveals the depths of his internal anguish. But even if News of the World is more quiet and stately, it still achieves its intended emotional catharsis by the end.