4.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, occasional profanity, disturbing images and dramatic intensity

Paul Greengrass always makes thoughtful, emotionally engaging films, whether crowd-pleasing thrillers — three entries in the Jason Bourne series — or ripped-from-the-headlines dramas, such as Bloody SundayUnited 93 and 22 July.

 

Having been stopped on the road by a gang of questionable intent, Jefferson Kidd
(Tom Hanks) and his young companion (Helena Zengel) are “escorted” into the
nearby community of Durand, their fate most definitely uncertain.

His newest, based on poet/author Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel of the same title, is a bit of both … due to current events that weren’t as obvious when she wrote her book.

 

News of the World — opening today in operational movie theaters — is set in early 1870, in the untamed and dangerous border between South Texas and Indian territory. Although the Civil War is five years gone, the nation remains bitterly divided; that’s particularly true in this state. Texas has yet to be readmitted to the Union, having refused thus far to ratify the 13th amendment banning slavery.

 

Patrols of Union soldiers maintain an uneasy peace in towns, and on the roads linking them; their presence is just as likely to inflame tension, as prevent it. Half of the population passionately fought for a vision of the country that was defeated; it’s unclear whether America — as a unified entity — can heal itself. Information itself is suspect, depending on its source.

 

Sound familiar?

 

Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a veteran of three wars, leads a peripatetic life within this environment. He travels from town to town, armed with newspapers and broadsheets, and draws crowds as a non-fiction storyteller who shares the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, devastating catastrophes and gripping incidents involving individual people.

 

He’s no Charles Dickens, with a thunderous and well-acted performance; he hunches over and squints through a magnifying glass while reading the tiny print aloud. But his delivery is no less captivating, thanks to Hanks’ warmth and sincerity; Kidd has a dignified bearing that grants him authority. People hang on his words, and he fills the house at 10 cents a head, thereby earning a meager but reliable living.

 

He’s wary and careful, when on the road with his humble wagon; roving bands of Union soldiers aren’t necessarily any safer than thieves and cutthroats.

 

One day he chances upon a frightened 10-year-old girl (Helena Zengel). Papers recovered from her demolished wagon — her adult companion having been lynched, due to his skin color — reveal that she’s Johanna Leonberger, whose family was killed six years earlier by the Kiowa tribe, who then raised her as one of their own. She’s now being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will, after her Kiowa home was burned by the soldiers who “rescued” her. In effect, she has been kidnapped twice.

 

Kidd hasn’t the faintest idea what to do with her. He tries first to enlist official Union aid; when that fails, he attempts to temporarily leave the girl in the care of friends in the nearest town. But she’s wild, speaks only Kiowa, and is hostile to this “civilized” world she never has experienced. Kidd ultimately decides to deliver her himself, to where the law insists she belongs.

 

Their subsequent journey has an unsettling, Heart of Darkness atmosphere that Greengrass exploits relentlessly; watching this film is an exercise in nervous tension, and not just because of the dangers on the road. Initially, the girl — suffering a blend of fear, uncertainty and defiance — is completely unpredictable; she seems forever poised to bolt, like a frightened deer. 

 

We sense, from Hanks’ gaze during these early scenes, that Kidd contemplates tying her up each night … but he’s too kind-hearted for such an act.

 

It also becomes clear that Kidd is on his own emotional journey; he’s a wounded, scarred man who — we gradually realize — feels that he has failed in the most profound way. His day-to-day survival is akin to stalling; he hasn’t yet found a way to heal. Hanks conveys this and much more; we wish Kidd more of the half-smiles and cranky good humor that occasionally surface from the gloom that perpetually surrounds him.

 

Zengel is a marvelous young actress, and she rises to her role’s substantial challenge. Due to the language barrier, Johanna — who insists on using her Kiowa name, Cicada — speaks very little during the first act; everything we sense and learn about her is conveyed via Zengel’s expressions and body language. Her gaze speaks volumes. (Actually, it often shouts.)

 

When Johanna finally begins to relax and trust her new guardian — a bit — her childlike personality gradually emerges; she is, after all, only 10. Zengel makes her even more engaging at this point, as she and Kidd begin to exchange words; Johanna’s impatience with Kidd’s failure to understand is complemented by his world-weary amusement.

 

A threshold is crossed following Kidd’s performance at one town, when they’re approached by a smarmy Confederate soldier named Almay (Michael Angelo Covino) and his two equally unsavory companions. Their interest in Johanna clearly is unpleasant; she perceives that she needs Kidd’s protection, and — more important — understands that he’s selflessly willing to grant it.

 

Things get much worse a bit later, when they unintentionally stumble on Durand, a “community” run by despot Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy, oozing malevolence), who fancies himself the strongman of his own feudal fiefdom. Hanks’ performance truly shines here, as Kidd navigates a series of physical and psychological pitfalls.

 

Elizabeth Marvel makes the most of her brief appearance as Mrs. Gannett, a compassionate Dallas livery barn owner with a soft spot for Kidd. Fred Hechinger is captivating as one of Farley’s motley gang: a cheerful young man who seems a bit simple, and whose actions prove unexpected.

 

Production designer David Crank and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski place us solidly in this 19th century environment. Despite having the same degree of ramshackle instability, each of the various little towns has a unique personality; some even display the beginnings of neighborhoods. Dallas is more bustling — a nascent city, even at this point — while Durand has a nasty, off-the-radar feeling.

 

Wolski’s dynamic framing and handheld camerawork evoke classic John Ford Westerns, with their blend of the epic grandeur of landscapes, and the intimacy of two characters getting to know each other after being thrown together.

 

James Newton Howard’s score mixes sweeping orchestral movements — particularly as Kidd and Johanna arrive in Dallas — and melodies performed by a “broken consort” of primitive-sounding instruments: old cellos, viola da gambas and viola d’amores. The latter augment the sense of men and women still not over the war: their hopes and dreams smashed, and lacking harmony.

 

It’s no accident, then, that the score becomes more triumphant and melodic as Kidd and Johanna’s journey progresses.

Greengrass builds his film to a powerful conclusion quite worthy of this journey. There’s a sense, having reached this climax, that we’ve watched a much longer miniseries; I can think of no higher mark of satisfaction. News of the World isn’t quite epic, but it’s darn close.

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