Texas, 1870. The magnificently named Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels from town to town as it sounds as a “news anchor” – he picks the most interesting current articles from newspapers and magazines and reads them to the locals for a dime so they can hear “the big ones” changes that are out there occur. “He’s a mix of reporter and storyteller and something of a folklorist. Kidd was once a preacher too, and that’s not too surprising either. “It’s not a rich man’s job,” he chuckles, but it’s a respectable one. More importantly, he can travel and work with no real commitments or connections. And then, in spite of himself, he makes one.
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Captain Kidd is at the center of “News from all over the world,” the new film by Paul Greengrassand a reunion of the director and Hanks, his “Captain Philips” Star. They go well together. Greengrass is well aware of how much melancholy and determination Hanks can convey with a carefully placed and well-timed close-up, and Hanks knows that in the big canvases of Greengrass, he can do the kind of little acting he does best.
And of course much of what he does here is indicative and reactive. Between the cities, Kidd makes a gruesome discovery: an overturned and searched car with the black driver hanging from a tree, and a frightened girl who looks on nearby. Her name is Johanna (and is played by Helena Zengel). She is blonde and white but speaks the Kiowa language. The driver took them to federal agencies after their tribe was wiped out. “This child is orphaned twice,” Kidd is told. This tribe, he later found out, had taken her from the family she was born with. He tries to pass them on to the authorities himself, but no dice; Ultimately, he realizes that he has to take her to the remains of her extended family himself.
It is a long and difficult journey on which they face a series of increasingly menacing antagonists that Greengrass built as a series of pointed set pieces. A trio of border bastards tries to “buy” Johanna and become murderous when Kidd refuses. Their extended, frightening distance and gunfight is an ace of action filmmaking as Greengrass highlights the tension of the encounter with long, quietly exciting stretches of silence and tension.
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Even more terrifying is their visit to Erath County, where they are hit on the border by men with shotguns who are resistant to Captain Kidd’s mission. His papers mock: “We’re building a whole new world down here in Erath County, but there’s none of that in here.” Their idea of a “whole new world” is to “Mexicans and Injuns” by order of Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), the exploitative and racist overlord of the area and the star of his propaganda paper, which he publishes himself. (You can easily make the timely connections.) Urged to read this “official” news, Kidd is brilliantly using the situation to his advantage, but what the sequence sells is Greengrass’ staging: it’s like one Journey to hell, all fire and flesh and bad vibes.
Greengrass is a great filmmaker, but a decidedly contemporary one, smart enough to know that he is working in a more conventional genre, and therefore (mostly) shuns his signature flourishes for a more classic style. It doesn’t seem to be constrained by demand. On the contrary, his pictures pulsate with affection for the wide views and the sun-drenched sky. ((James Newton HowardThe Crackerjack score is also an advantage.) Some of the digital effects are very shady (and, to be honest, unnecessary; if Ford and Hawks could do these things in a practical way, Greengrass could, too). But this is no problem. Most importantly, he understands the political and emotional aspects of the scene in a way that some Westerners don’t even recognize, by pointing out the tensions in America after the Civil War and, like Kidd, trying to calm them down in a small way.
It’s half shocking that Hanks hadn’t faced a western before. Hence, he is ideally suited to play the Western hero – a walking personification of home-made values, presumed morals, and the many qualities evoked by the term “All-American” man “(at least in its complementary sense). Hanks does not channel the rugged frontier commuter, but a kind of intellectual. It is a James Stewart or Gary Cooper Role instead of a John Wayne. And perhaps its presence and its effects deprive the image of any sense of danger or unpredictability, but that may well be the point; When you saw these movies, you always knew the hero was on the right and that heroism was part of the package. What Hanks brings to the character is an emotional depth; The sadness in his eyes, in the climatic scenes of the film, is absolutely bottomless. And that’s important, because the closing scenes aren’t based on a big shootout, but on a simple man grappling with his own grief.
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Greengrass surrounds his star with an outstanding ensemble, including Ray McKinnon, Elizabeth Marvel (Consolidation of the already distinctive connection to “True Grit”), and Bill Camp (Who only has one scene but it’s a beauty) The revelation here, however, is Zengel, who said little (none of that in English) but has the presence and gravity of a silent film actor who has her story and trauma mainly in hers haunted eyes and charged facial expressions. It all comes to the fore in a heartbreaking homecoming scene as soon as the image really rises to size as she approaches Hanks, takes his hand, and leads him away as the sun creeps into the lens. That’s myth right there, the connection between deserved emotion and natural beauty. This is what the West does best, and News of the World deserves a comparison with the best of them. [A]
News of the World hits theaters on December 25 in the US and on Netflix worldwide.