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‘News of the World’ review: Tom Hanks wins the West

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd has a helluva gig. He schleps around the US reading newspapers aloud to backwoods townsfolk during the 1870s.

While that task may seem simple enough next to other 19th-century jobs such as laying railroad track or cattle-wrangling, the work is treacherous. Report the news in the wrong tone, and you could infuriate the masses. Angry mobs might form against you. You’d receive death threats in the saloon. 

news of the world

Running time: 118 minutes. <br>Rated PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language). In select theaters.

It was a very different time then, you see. There were saloons.

Kidd, who is a fictional creation by author Paulette Jiles, is the main character of the new Western film “News of the World,” a more intimate, less macho take on the genre from director Paul Greengrass.

The grizzled-but-sensitive Civil War vet is the perfect fit for Tom Hanks, who bounces back from his wobbly war film “Greyhound” that was released in the summer. Kidd taps into all the qualities that make Hanks one of the world’s most popular actors: pathos, empathy, star quarterback charisma and a lesser-seen side — grit.

Kidd’s speeches aren’t singsong “Forrest Gump” stories; they’re fraught with peril. In each town, the man arrives to a community sequestered and likely illiterate, so every word he speaks sends them into a tailspin. Texans hearing word of abolition? Tough crowd. They go gaga for a faraway, harrowing rescue, though.

As the captain recounts extraordinary, international tales, he becomes one when he is forced to take care of Johanna (Helena Zengel), a little girl who had been held captive by the Kiowa Native American tribe for six years. Traveling Kidd is tasked with getting the girl back to her family on the East Coast. But Johanna, who wishes to stay with the Kiowa, no longer speaks English and is mystified by spoons.

Putting a child at the center of a Western adds urgency to a world in which life tends to be cheap. The young were not so protected then as they are now, and predators were not always ostracized. Greengrass’ best shoot-out comes when a perv tries to buy Johanna off Kidd for his own sick purposes, which her new caretaker won’t allow.

Outside of that tense tête-à-tête and a few other sequences, “News of the World” is not a very violent film, as far as modern Westerns go. That’s refreshing. The genre has become one of bloodbaths and thriller plots, and has jettisoned the romance of the Old West. 

The pitfall of the film’s ambitious hundreds-of-miles journey is that, by all appearances, we barely budge. Every town, field and forrest looks about the same, vaguely Western-y, and their residents are an identical mix of dirty and grumpy. So, the passage of time is left to the lead actors. 

Hanks and Zengel, a 12-year-old German actress, form a believable, loving bond as she teaches him Kiowa phrases and even helps Kidd get out of some hairy situations. A nomad, whose life has been defined by loss, battle and endless movement, finally finds a glimmer of peace in an unlikely new friendship. 

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