No, this is nothing to do with the British newspaper of that name, which ended its life in 2011. And even though the leading character Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) describes himself as “a newsreader”, it’s a profession very different from what we mean by the term today.
The time is 1870 and we are in Texas, five years after the Civil War has left America a divided country and a shattered and in many places lawless society. The now middle aged Kidd fought on the side of the south, which is unusual for the hero of a Western, which is what this is. Both history and movies tend to be written by the winners. Kidd is a loner, one of those many, who have lost their roots in the war. He earns a meagre living travelling from town to town literally reading the news from the newspapers to a presumably illiterate audience, who are eager for stories of the outside world to distract them from their largely miserable existence.
Things change when Kidd comes across ten year old Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), the child of German immigrants, who was abducted as a toddler by warriors from the Kiowa tribe, who presumably killed her parents. For Johanna being part of the tribe is the only life she knows and Kiowa is the only language she speaks. She has now been forcibly rescued by the authorities and by law must be returned to her only relatives, an uncle and aunt who live at the other end of the giant state at a time when much of Texas is an untamed wilderness. The occupying Northern military show no interest in doing the job themselves and Kidd finds himself volunteering.
So this is a journey film, a quest undertaken by two strangers who develop a relationship through the experiences they share. Some of them are positive, as when they enjoy a night’s shelter in the then village of Dallas with Kidd’s friend and occasional lover Mrs Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel), who speaks Kiowa through her historic dealings with the tribe and is able to help Kidd and the child connect.
Predictably not all their encounters are that pleasant though. At one point there is a well staged gun battle between Kidd and war veteran turned gangster and people trafficker Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) who wants Joanna as fodder for the brothels, in the course of which Joanna shows she’s learned a trick or two about weaponry from her Kiowa family. Another of Texas’s bully boys is Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), the buffalo hunting self crowned king of Durand, whose “courtiers” boast of the Indians and Mexicans they have slaughtered in order to increase Farley’s wealth.
This is a classic journey movie format in the course of which two people bond and which depends largely on those two characters (along with the scenery) to hold our interest. Hanks, here battered, bearded and grizzled, is a sympathetic and appropriately life worn hero, while Zengel as Johanna shows not only impressive acting ability but a talent for doing that in a foreign language. She learned English for the film but most of her dialogue is in the Kiowa language, which she also had to master. And she was only eleven years old when the film was being made.
The film is a dramatic departure from the Bourne movies for which the film’s British director Paul Greengrass is best known. He says he was attracted to the story because it resonates for our times. He has a point. Although the world of 1870s America is very different from the sophisticated consumer society of today, it is only a hundred and fifty years ago. Some of the grandchildren and certainly the great grandchildren of the people who lived then will still be alive today. And looking at the lives, the conflicts and the attitudes of their sometimes laudable and sometimes ruffian and racist ancestors, one can indeed see the roots of what has developed into a still deeply divided and conflicted country.
News of the World is currently available on Netflix