Tom Hanks has been voicing a cowboy in animated form for so long, I wasn’t quite sure that he would be able to pull it off in the real world. With some facial hair, a cowboy hat, and by the grace of God, he did it. With News of the World, he has made the elusive jump from animated to live action cowboy that every actor dreams of but no one else has been able to do (don’t fact check any of that).
Okay, okay, I’ll admit. Calling Tom Hanks’s character in News of the World a “cowboy” might be a little bit of a stretch. But you know what? The movie is set in the post-Civil War United States, he rides horses, and he looks like he hasn’t showered since the north and south began their feud. For me, that’s enough to call him a cowboy.
In actuality, though, his character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, is a veteran who has found purpose in delivering the news. He travels from city to city, as the townspeople gather to hear him read the local and national newspapers to them. Although they are factual stories, he animates them in such a way that his listeners are just as enthralled as I was when I saw Avengers: Endgame.
During his travels, he finds a young girl, Johanna, all by herself in the woods. He tries to communicate with her, to no avail, but learns that she is a part of the Kiowa tribe and she had been taken by them many years ago.
When he meets her, however, he finds that everyone that she had been traveling with has been viciously slaughtered, leaving her all alone. Captain Kidd takes it upon himself to make sure she makes it home to her blood-related aunt and uncle safely.
From here, News of the World is essentially a road trip movie. Which feels silly to say when the main mode of transportation is a horse and carriage. Nevertheless, it has all the tropes of a road trip movie. During their journey, they encounter all sorts of obstacles, meet a host of colorful characters, and learn more about themselves along the way. And truly, isn’t that what all road trips are for?
Despite having familiar beats, the film manages to keep you engaged. Being a period piece helps it to achieve this goal. Because some of these tropes are often seen, being set in the Post-Civil War era makes it different. It has a unique feel to it and features some different, if slightly familiar situations.
For example, at one point, the duo finds themselves caught in a sandstorm. Natural elements always find their way into road trips. But using a naturally causing situation like a sandstorm is not only unique but an interesting peek into that time period, where our heroes have nothing to guard them from a full-on sand assault. It feels overwhelming to us, in the same way that it does them. This allows us to invest further in their journey, as we want them to make it out alive.
Speaking of Natural Elements
Although the acting is solid, the real star of the movie is the location. Filmed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the scenery is bursting through the screen. It is breathtakingly gorgeous and a real contender for my favorite cinematography of the year. Each landscape wide shot is at once cold and isolating, and yet, somehow, warm and familiar. I haven’t been this in awe of location shooting since The Revenant. And maybe it’s because I am just a sucker for the cold, wintry look of both movies. If that’s the case, so be it. It works for me. And it could be because I am familiar with these kind of dusks, living in the midwest, but it greatly adds to my feeling a part of the story.
As you may have gathered from the plot of the film, News of the World is, for the most part, a two hander. Most of the movie is spent following two people and two people only, Captain Kidd and Johanna. Tom Hanks is just as good as we have come to expect from him across his many decades of being America’s favorite leading man. Despite having two Academy Awards, he is actually shown up by his twelve year old co-star.
Can you imagine starring alongside Tom Hanks before going to middle school? Helena Zengel can. Zengel plays Johanna. Despite not speaking for a good part of the movie, Johanna is a well flushed out character. She is so young but displays a certain level of maturity. She feels at a loss without her other tribemates but is determined to make it back to those still alive. Even while Captain Kidd is trying to take her elsewhere.
In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Johanna is seen on the edge of a cliff, crying for the spirits of her recently murdered tribemates not to leave her. She is wailing, begging for them to come back. Within this context. a scene like that is objectively sad. Performed with such emotion, it is gut wrenching. Zengel is so obviously talented and was a welcome surprise in the film.
News of the World Themes
Although the film is kind of light on plot, it is heavy on themes. Throughout their journey, Captain Kidd and Johanna rely on one another and form a kind of father-daughter relationship. She helps him learn to forgive himself and his past. At the same time, they are teaching each other to find value in relationships, even non-familial. They have both loved and lost but they are learning to heal by remembering and honoring those they have lost and moving forward because of them.
Taken as a Whole
News of the World is not groundbreaking. At its core, it is a western set road trip. But instead of the hijinks often seen in such movies, we are treated to a humanistic story about resilience. These two broken characters have found each other at a pivotal time in their lives and are forever changed by their relationship. It is a tale as old as time told in such a caring, thoughtful way. With a solid turn by Hanks and a truly great debut by Zengel, News of the World will leave viewers satisified.