BY MOLLY GIVEN
We’ve seen Tom Hanks wear many hats, but in Paul Greengrass’ film, “New of the World,” the actor’s latest hat fits just right.
The new feature, which was released on Christmas Day and recently bought by Netflix for international rights, is based on Paulette Jiles’ best-selling book of the same name. The plot follows Hanks as Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd in post-Civil-War era Texas. Kidd’s job is to travel and do a task that seems essential today but was more of a luxury than skill back in 1870—read. In a world today where news can be found in seconds and information is almost overloaded through different digital platforms, it can be hard to grasp just how secluded some people were when it came to global news. That’s where Kidd came in during this time period, but his story does not start and end with the newspaper he explains to the masses. In fact, his story begins when he happens upon a 10-year-old girl taken by the Kiowa people named Johanna (played by Helena Zengel.)
After some trial and tribulation in trying to find Johanna a home with her aunt and uncle, Kidd himself is tasked with carrying out the job. From then on out, Hank’s character—who is the former owner of a newspaper printing press in San Antonio—takes on the responsibility of transporting Johanna 400 miles through many different trials and tribulations—some natural and some not. Although you can imagine the variety of wild animals and elements that the unlikely duo must grapple through to travel in the Texas plains in 1870, it’s actually the latter of the last sentence which really drives the pair to fight. Both Kidd and Johanna come across seedy characters when they make a stop in a small town, and a group of men set their eyes on the blonde-haired blue-eyed child.
Through a series of fights, most of which involve weapons and wits, Kidd demonstrates through the events that he’s not exactly your run of the mill intellect traveling the wild west. In fact he is a Confederate veteran, and one with great skill and even compassion at that.
Audiences really sink into that notion with Kidd’s own proclamation as to why he now does what he does: “When [the Civil War] was over, it was all gone. I lost everything. Had to make a new life for myself right there. I couldn’t print the newspapers anymore, but I could read ’em.”
The vet has a lot more on his plate than just shady characters, he also must protect Johanna and survive through outlaws and a sandstorm to complete his task. Why is he so compassionate? For one, the life the young girl has lived has been one full of sorrow and tragedy including something so unspeakable. Another motivation comes from Kidd’s own family life—he himself has left a wife behind to perform his duties before happening upon the young Johanna.
The film itself will definitely pique the interest of Western-lovers with the landscape to the towns to the people that they happen upon. Greengrass has a way of making the somewhat dull and almost un-interesting barren land that makes up the duo’s path into an eventful and at times heart-pumping adventure from start to finish, but the story is truly brought alive by the acting.
Would anybody doubt Tom Hanks’ abilities by now? Probably not, even if you’re not a fan of the actor, it would be a bit of a far stretch to say he has no chops at all—he’s got awards and a laundry list of accomplishments to combat that. But it’s really the addition of Zengel’s character that helps bring an added emotion to the film.
Seeing their connection come to life on screen is captivating, especially with the lack of communication. Johanna speaks another language when she meets Kidd and most of what they have to say to each other is through non-verbal cues and body language. By no means is this film one that will knock your socks off with action, even with the more intense scenes, but it does have a poetic central theme.
Kidd is there to spread the news of the world through words and must try and save the life of someone who he can’t even communicate with normally. However, it’s that exact irony that fuels the story.
If families were looking for a flick to enjoy together with the lack of movie traffic that normally brings this time of year alive, they have found it.
“News of the World” is now in theaters and will be coming to Netflix.
This story first appeared on our sister publication philly.metro.us.