The Bock’s Office: ‘News of the World’ a revealing portrait of a nation in transition
With radios, television sets, computers and other devices standing between the providers of information and those receiving it, there’s a certain level of courage inherent in anyone willing to do the job in real time, face to face with an audience.
That’s not the only reason the protagonist of “News of the World” is a hero, but it’s a start.
In 1870, the aftermath of the Civil War is still felt harshly across the United States, with former members of the Confederacy especially bitter about the jarring changes they have experienced.
Texas is no exception to the enmity remaining in the South, and Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) knows this as well as anyone. Once a member of the Texas Infantry, Kidd now makes his living as a traveling news reader, collecting newspapers from around the region and providing the highlights for crowds.
Along his route, Kidd encounters an abandoned young girl (Helena Zengel) with limited communication abilities whom he learns is the child of German immigrants and has spent most of her life as a captive of the Kiowa tribe. His attempts to place her with the proper authorities fall flat, resulting in Kidd being tasked with either leaving her entirely or returning her to her remaining family.
Reluctantly taking on the job, Kidd slowly builds a bond with his new charge as the two unlikely companions face rough terrain, shady folks willing to do anything to survive, and their own dark pasts.
It’s a bit of a reach to say Hanks is the only one who could play a part like this, but he may be the best possible actor to check all the boxes as someone who can be convincingly rugged, charming and emotionally haunted. While he has echoes of John Wayne as the obsessive veteran tracking his abducted niece in “The Searchers” — plot-wise, this could almost be the spiritual sequel to John Ford’s masterpiece, one of the few Westerns of yesteryear with a social message — Kidd is far more of an intellectual while still remaining an everyman of the 19th century, far less committed to any one side within the War of the States but sympathizing with all involved.
Hanks holds his own out on the prairie as a protector of a girl he barely knows, though his real shine is in his character’s makeshift career as an orator articulating the local, state and national headlines as a prototype of the typical anchorman in the coming decades.
Zengel has the more difficult role as a child who has no sense of cultural identity, unable to speak English and possessing only repressed memories when it comes to her native tongue, primarily speaking Kiowa to fit in with the only family she’s ever known, a surefire way to alienate a bunch of pioneers. The young actress excels as Johanna — a name she refuses to answer to for a good long while — starting as a near-feral wild child with no trust of white people but quickly proving her canny survival prowess to her new caretaker, who likewise learns how to bring her out of her shell.
Johanna’s recurring state of confusion about herself is an ideal metaphor for the condition of the country during the Reconstruction Era: angry and violent often, wistful sometimes, begrudgingly accepting of progress, but ultimately full of hope that better days might be ahead.
Though written and filmed well before a global pandemic, that sounds familiar for more than one reason…
Hanks’ second team-up with director Paul Greengrass is half a world away from the action of “Captain Phillips” and the fact that the story, based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, isn’t based on true events is arguably for the better with a script co-penned by Greengrass and Luke Davies.
New Mexico filming locations stand in for the Lone Star State landscape, and though the stark wilderness brings its own challenges for anyone hitting the trail, it’s when Kidd and the kid visit civilization that things get especially harsh. While some view Kidd’s traveling exhibition of current events as an enlightening night out — enhanced by the whimsical touch of a magnifying glass on a string for the reader’s aging eyes — a latent hostility remains in each of his crowds as he provides them with information on people they still view as the enemy.
Despite Kidd taking great care to attune his presentations to the sensibilities of his audience, the adage “don’t shoot the messenger” is deadly serious, proving that denial, outrage and bias regarding facts is by no means a new phenomenon.
An especially nail-biting scene takes place in a boom town ruled over by a leader who prefers to keep residents isolated and ignorant of everything outside their radius.
When was the last time simply trying to read aloud from Harper’s Magazine resulted in a riot?
“News of the World” is a tale that could resonate at any time, yet it comes out at a period in American history that, like the Civil War and its ensuing years, will inevitably be tainted by opinion and misinformation when it’s recorded 150 years from now. What’s worse is the wealth of knowledge readily available from all sides in 2020 somehow results in a willful seclusion equivalent to living in a tiny desert town in 1870.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that taking in opposing viewpoints, being challenged on your prejudices, and actually making the effort to understand your fellow man is what’s going to make a better nation.
“News of the World,” rated PG-13
4 out of 4 stars
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Elizabeth Marvel and Mare Winningham
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