A man travelling from town to town reading the news is tasked with delivering a young German girl who has been living with the Kiowa people back to her only living relatives.
Intinerant storytellers have a long history: outsiders who paradoxically bring people together through the connective power of stories, even if the lines between truth and fable can become blurred.
Captain Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a 19th century version, travelling from town to town reading out the actual news of the world to eager paying audiences – turning tiny print on yellowing pages into exciting adventures that bring people closer across the miles as much as they show up the differences in people’s lives.
And like the most successful storytellers he’s not averse to adding his own spin in both delivery and emphasis to particular stories in particular towns.
After watching News Of The World I was tempted to start a business pitching up in English village halls reading out film reviews and charging you all 10p a listen, until I remembered we have podcasts for that now, and in a mark of “progress” it’s almost impossible to charge for content.
Kidd charges a dime for his shows, and a show is what it is – as he selects the most shocking, interesting and relevant stories, turning a few printed lines into a one-man play. It’s not just information as entertainment; it’s also breaking down barriers in a country just five years after the end of the civil war, a country beset by violence and distrust.
Paul Greengrass’s latest film – he directed and co-wrote – is set on a huge, moving canvas yet feels far from sprawling, as Kidd transports the reluctant Johanna (a superb Helena Zengel), a young white girl found living with the Kiowa Native American people, four hundred miles to German relatives she’s never met.
The dangers along the road are many: soldiers, lawless gunmen, too much heat, too little water, a dodgy pin on a wagon wheel meeting a random rock. These are urgent hazards – and they appear with great regularity, interspersed with relatively calm stretches along the dusty “main” road – each one capable of killing either or both of them.
Yet even as they face these incidents, it becomes clear, as Kidd tells his young charge, that if they don’t face the demons of their past they cannot move forward. Their peril-filled road trip turns into a meditation on what home, family and country actually mean.
Kidd comes across her in a wood, where a bloody trail from an overturned wagon leads him to a Black man hanged in a tree, a warning notice from a white militia pinned to him. Nearby is the wary Johanna, and in the ruins of the wagon the official papers that show the man was taking her to relatives in Castroville.
When official and unofficial avenues fail he decides to take her himself, though it will take weeks and leave him back near his old home, San Antonio, a place of ghosts.
News Of The World is about making connections that bring us together in a world that sometimes seems too vast and cruel to contemplate. And while it skims over the realities of colonialism in favour of a message that we just need to put aside our differences (doesn’t that sound familiar?), in the small-scale context of Johanna’s life experiences it does work.
She’s been living with the Kiowa people since they killed her family years before, but now they too have been brutally murdered. She doesn’t speak English, and Kidd can’t speak Kiowa. Luckily his friend and sometime lover Mrs Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel) can, and at their Dallas stopover helps him put Johanna’s behaviour into context, pointing out that she “is an orphan twice over”.
The film is on surer footings when talking about social class: Kidd and Johanna are forcibly accompanied to Erath, a town under the control of Mr Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy). His employees are beaten down by his demands and laws, but instead of pumping out news from Farley’s propaganda sheet, Kidd uses his soapbox to tell the assembled workers a story of people just like them taking back their own agency. Kidd is old and exhausted: “The war is over Mr Farley,” he tells him. “We have to stop fighting some time.”
His audiences aren’t all “his people”. In one Texan town they respond with anger when he reads out the news that President Ulysses S Grant has ordered that slaves be freed and allowed to vote, and war debt must be repaid.
Everywhere are the different groups that make up this country: a long column of Kiowa Native Americans trek away in the night, turned off their own land; the tiny wooden town of Dallas, on a knife-edge of lawlessness; and San Antonio, a warren of Mediterranean stone houses with a vast town square dominated by a Spanish-style church.
Of all their fights for survival, the most terrifying is a long, excruciatingly tense shootout as three men stalk them among huge boulders under a scorching sky. This is a stunning if dangerous world, from the wide, red river that gives the command post its name to the cold blue night as Kidd and Johanna rush to escape three men who tried to buy her. The main road is a dusty track in a dusty expanse, with maybe a few derelict houses in the middle of nowhere, showing just how intrepid settlers were.
Despite the dramas there’s an almost-peaceful rhythm to it, though it also feels like an old-style Saturday morning serial, binge-watched in 2021: a few miles’ trotting in the wagon, learning from each other, followed by near-disaster, and then more peaceful miles. (The last act is – after the traumas they’ve endured en route – cheeringly predictable yet still moving, though it feels at odds in terms of tempo.)
News Of The World reminded me of another recent film about an older man who has walked away from his family, forced to take charge of a near-silent girl in a dangerous landscape. The Midnight Sky starred George Clooney as another bearded loner who finds himself travelling across the ice with a mysterious young girl. The landscapes and centuries may be different, but both stories are set in wild landscapes in terrifying times. Both also feature natural phenomena – a snowstorm, a duststorm – that leave these initially unwilling father figures desperately searching for their newly-acquired children.
The relationship between Kidd and Johanna in News Of The World is unusual because so often children in these movie scenarios are tasked with turning a damaged, curmudgeonly adult into a functioning human again. There is nothing of that here; Johanna’s impressive smarts help save them but she never has to help him fight his own demons, though he helps her face hers.
I can barely imagine anyone but Hanks portraying Kidd, which is acknowledgement of both his acting and his status as the film world’s dad. He could phone in this type of role but doesn’t; it’s a committed performance, and a heartfelt one. Still, he is outshone by Helena Zengel, an extraordinary performer who says little yet tells us so much.
News Of The World is streaming on Netflix UK now. Read my (very spoilery) article: The News Of The World, trying to get a nation to talk to itself
Watch the trailer: