News of the World is a solid if not slightly slow addition to the western/drama genre. When a performer who goes from town to town reading world news comes across a young, white, orphan girl who speaks no English, he endeavors on a long journey to bring her back to her remaining family, despite her resistance.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a Civil War veteran who is trying to make peace with his inner demons by traveling from town to town reading the news from around the world. This is important because most people are not literate, nor do they have access to what’s going on in the world outside their own small locales. Kidd’s performances earn him a meager living, which is just enough to scrape by in the gun-toting, brutal Wild West, and the Deep South.
While traveling through an unstable Texas, Captain Kidd comes across a young girl (Helena Zengel) in a bit of a bind, with her caretaker dead and their wagon destroyed. He discovers the girl is named Johanna from a letter that she carries on her, but that she is unable to read. As it turns out, she speaks no English, since she was raised since infancy by the Kiowa tribe, whose members have all died.
Seeing and seizing a chance to do something noble, Captain Kidd takes on the perilous journey to take the young, reluctant Johanna back to any of her living family, if they’re still around. With plenty of obstacles along the way, he has ample opportunity to prove to himself that he’s a hero, acting as her last defender, and a man who knows what’s right and then acts on it. But will he and his protégée find her family, or at least a place to settle down and call home?
Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Identity, Captain Phillips) steadies his set with tripods in this Western that is less action-packed than his usual style. The heroism shines through his affable super star Hanks, who has an easy rapport with the child star Zengel. Across the board the performances all mesh well, which is saying a lot considering most encounters in the film could easily escalate to life-or-death confrontations.
The attention to detail is impeccable, subtly telling its own story through costumes and locations. Even the bit characters are fine additions to the storyline. A well-armed host of baddies that menace Captain Kidd and the young girl populate their journey, allowing the main characters a chance to bond, as well as outshine the source material.
Composer James Newton Howard has created a score that subtly adds a believable and lovely background by which to tell a great story. Cinematographer Darius Wolski’s steady hand adds to this, capturing some gorgeous and sweeping landscape that the characters navigate, that truly feels like an honorable nod to the Wild West.
Plodding evenly through a standard run time, this PG-13 western doesn’t intend to break any barriers in terms of story, nor create an inevitable bloodbath like many of its predecessors. It does, however, take a simple idea for a tale and tell it in a nuanced and professional manner. What it lacks in big bangs and gunfights it makes up for in credibility and lively, charismatic characters.