Tom Hanks Goes West in Contemplative ‘News of the World’

Tom Hanks is the hero we need in “News of the World,” a new kind of classic Western set in 1870 Texas. After 25 years of playing Woody the toy cowboy in the “Toy Story” films, Hanks gets the chance to make a real go of it in the Old West as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War vet. Kidd once owned a printing press, but now he makes a living traveling from town to town reading the news to mostly tired and overworked settlers. Childless and separated from his wife, he seems resigned to living a lonely existence until an orphaned child with a unique backstory crosses his path.

The child is Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), the daughter of German settlers who has been living with the Kiowa people since her parents were killed six years prior. Now, her adopted family has met the same fate, and when Kidd finds her, she has government paperwork explaining her situation and naming her next of kin, an aunt and uncle in San Antonio. After being told at a nearby military base that he must wait a month for someone to take Johanna off his hands, he decides to escort her to San Antonio himself. First, he attempts to leave her with some friends (Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham), only to have her risk her life to catch up with him. Understandably, the girl has some abandonment issues.

In the beginning, Kidd and Johanna have issues with communication, as she doesn’t remember much of the German from her early life and he, of course, doesn’t speak the language of the Kiowa. However, Kidd, who is Hanks in peak paternal mode, shows by his actions that he is an adult to be trusted, and it is moving to watch as the bond between them deepens. Hanks gives his young co-star plenty of room to shine, and Zengel rises to Hanks’ level with her performance.

However, “New of the World” isn’t all sentimental, as Kidd and Johanna face some real dangers, the biggest one being Almay (Michael Angelo Covino), a former Confederate soldier who offers to buy the young girl from her temporary guardian. After he refuses, Almay tracks them down and a shootout ensues, one that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats until the final seconds. In addition to murderous pedophiles, the pair also face racist killers in a settlement run by one Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), a white separatist who oppresses those he rules on his settlement. It’s quite a scene when Kidd makes a bold move that undermines his authority.

Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, “News of the World” reunites Hanks with “Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass, who co-wrote the screenplay with “Lion” writer Luke Davies. Greengrass and Davies manage to make their western feel rather timely, as the post-Civil War America we see here is a broken one, a country divided, and angry Texans are seen rallying against a government that they feel has left them behind. 

One critique of this Greengrass film is the lack of Indigenous representation. There is much talk of the ongoing violence between white settlers and those who were then called Indians, but only one side is represented. Johanna is the only link to the Indigenous world, and those who played a major role in shaping her into a spiritual and resourceful person are merely ghosts. And, unfortunately”News of the World” is currently releasing only in theaters and readers are not encouraged to risk their health and safety and the health and safety of others to see it quite yet. But, while there is no date announced yet, you shouldn’t have to wait long for the film to come to VOD.

News of the World” releases Dec. 25 in select cities.