News of the World ★★1/2
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“News of the World” has all the trappings of the on-the-road adventure genre, with hints of the Western and the buddy film—a mix of “True Grit” (older man and a girl too young to be a love interest) and “The Wizard of Oz” (another spunky young girl, seeking “home,” threats everywhere).
For Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (an empathetic, measured, avuncular Tom Hanks) and 10/11-year-old Johanna (a credible and intense Helena Zengel), the equivalent of the Emerald City is Castorville, Texas, 400 miles south from their starting point at Wichita Falls, across a wild, post-Civil War landscape infested by every known species of bad guy. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, but a patient, determined, Job-like Captain Kidd and the resourceful Johanna persevere against all odds. As luck would have it, Castorville—the home of Johanna’s aunt, her only living blood relative—is not far from San Antonio, where 5 years ago Kidd left his wife to fight for the Confederacy. So each of them has a destination.
There’s plenty of Hollywood action...and drama, much of it the product of a post-Civil War climate of male rancor, hostility and intolerance.
Between Wichita Falls and Castorville there’s plenty of Hollywood action by director Paul Greengrass (three of the “Bourne” films) and drama, much of it the product of a postwar climate of male rancor, hostility and intolerance—of blacks, Indians, Northerners and Mexicans—all fueled by and enveloped in a Trumpian Texas nationalism that’s capable of sending whole towns into vituperative frenzies. The first threat to the duo is perpetrated by a comically menacing trio of low-lifes (we know they’re evil because they look evil). The film also earns Hollywood points for its beauty; it has been nominated for 4 Oscars in production categories, including Dariusz Wolski for Best Cinematography.
If one can get beyond and beneath its excesses and a few improbable moments, “News of the World,” based on the 2016 eponymous novel by Paulette Jiles, has a serious side worthy of attention. Its protagonists are damaged souls, having suffered great loss. Blonde and blue-eyed Johanna has been twice orphaned, her German-American family slaughtered in front of her by Kiowas, who raised her from age 5 as Cicada; her Kiowa family recently killed by Northern cavalry. She speaks Kiowan and eventually recalls a few words of German, which evoke faint memories of her earlier tragedy. She’s understandably distrustful, fearful, recalcitrant, even a bit feral.
The source of Captain Kidd’s trauma and guilt, prefigured in scars shown in an early scene, is fully revealed at the end of the film. Until then, we know only that his profound sadness has something to do with absorbing and adjusting to the South’s defeat in the war—which he has done admirably, though perhaps at some psychic cost—and is centered on his failure to return to his wife in San Antonio.
Storytelling and recovered memory are steps in the healing of the country, and also of this haunted pair.
The film is also about place; Johanna/Cicada is obviously without a home, and Kidd‘s itinerant occupation marks him as placeless. For a dime per person, he reads the “news of the world” (presented here as a counterweight to localism, parochialism, and ignorance) to groups of folks in one town after another, never settling down. Storytelling and recovered memory are steps in the healing of the country, and also of this haunted pair.
The Civil War veteran and recently “freed” Kiowa captive have much to work out, and they do so on the road, bonding like soldiers in combat, then each, like Crusoe and Friday, learning bits of the language of the other, touchingly sharing inchoate thoughts about what it takes to be made well. While Kidd counsels “forgetting” and going forward, Johanna, drawing on a Kiowan culture that’s more circular than linear, knows better. “First,” she says, “you have to remember.” She’s right, and they will. Above all, an emotional journey.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
Oscars: Nominated for Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Sound
Other Awards: 4 wins and 68 other nominations
Runtime: 118 minutes