News of the World: Tom Hanks Goes West

By Jacob Sahms

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has seen the best and worst of the world as a leader in the Confederate Army, but he’s retired to a different occupation: reading the news to anyone who has ten cents to pay. When he arrives upon a young girl alone in the woods, he’s drawn into a mission to end all missions: he’s sent over hundreds of miles by foot and by horse-drawn wagon to deliver this young girl to her remaining, living family members.

Kidd (Hanks) begins, reluctantly, to transport Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) to where he relatives live. But this is a complicated relationship between Kidd and Johanna because Johanna has been raised from a young age by the Kiowa people. Johanna doesn’t speak English, just Kiowa and a little German, as the two begin their journey, but the rough elements of their commute will draw them closer together. They will teach each other, and they will learn together, how to survive the wilds of the West and how to find their way home again.

For all of the roles that Hanks has played, in all the genres from war to comedy to animated, News of the World becomes Hanks’ first western. But the man who played Chuck Noland, Sam Baldwin, Forrest Gump, and Captain John Miller appears most like Michael Sullivan of Road to Perdition: tired, world weary and wise, hopeful for the future in general, but wrestling with his own shadows and experiences. For recent comparison, Hostiles comes to mind, as the “buddy road trip” of the journey draws on the odd couple matchup, in a way that teaches something about our own selves while watching the two travelers navigate life together.

Director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips, United 93, Green Zone) has shot the film in earthy tones that make Hanks’ role both everyman and tied to the world through which he rides. Inside light is dark, natural to what the world of the mid-1800s looked like, and outside isn’t much better — just a spray of dull browns and grays… except that in the distance, the sun always seems to be shining, never quite here but almost. Through this world of knowledge and light Kidd rides, hoping against hope to be the kind of uplifting leader he once thought possible.

Of course, there is danger in the wild, but in an ironic 2020 twist, the violence and barrenness of nature is no threat compared to that in the human heart. While various people, set against the post-Civil War element, speak of truth, justice, and a way of peace, Kidd and Johanna find that too few of their fellow citizens can lay aside their basest instincts to help each other. [For 2020’s sake, COVID-19 serves as a deadly, unseen thing, but in reality, humans continue to do more damage to each other by their words, actions, and in-action than all of the diseases in the world.] We’re sure that Kidd has done things he wouldn’t have outside of war, that he lives with regret, but in Kidd, we see a man who longs to protect the future – embodied in Johanna – from the evil and violence he has seen.

When the violence rises up, Kidd is there reluctantly to meet it, even if he’s hoping to actually be the kind of man who can report the news, or share a story, to move a heart. And maybe, just maybe, to finally lay his weapons down.

News of the World debuts on December 25.