Extra, extra, read all about it! We actually have new movies at the local theater! “News of the World” opened Christmas day and it’s the first film we’ve seen in the western genre for years. The screenplay is from author Paulette Jiles’ 2016 bestseller by the same name. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass (who helmed three of the “Bourne” films), it tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widower and former Confederate officer who now makes a living traveling from town to town in Texas, making a living reading to the townfolk for a dime apiece.
The stories Captain Kidd reads are the only news people hear, living as they do in towns where a newspaper is a rare thing indeed, and news must make its way west by word of mouth or the rare newspaper that may be purchased in big cities. Even then, stories may be months old. But it’s amazing how many people fill the halls he rents, eager to hear anything he wants to read. And Capt. Kidd doesn’t disappoint. He’s an educated man with clear diction and appropriate emphasis, happy to both inform or make his audience laugh. He just has to be careful to avoid any news that could remind these Texans that they were on the losing side in that most recent war.
The story begins in Northeast Texas by the Red River. The Captain comes across a wagon, wrecked, and its driver hanging from a tree. What looks to be a young Indian girl is hiding beside the wreckage. Johanna is dressed like an Indian, but she’s got bright blond hair. Kidd manages to talk her into coming with him, and takes her to a Union Army outpost where he discovers she’s just been rescued from the Kiowa and needs to be returned to relatives in south Texas. Kiowa took her years ago in a raid that saw her parents and sister killed. Now she’s been taken again, this is the second time she’s lost her family.
He can wait for the Indian agent to return in three months, or take her himself. An effort to leave her with a local family isn’t successful. She keeps running away. Kidd realizes he’s going to have to take her himself. It’s going to make a journey that isn’t an easy one even harder.
Johanna’s family are German immigrants who farm at Castroville, not far from San Antonio. He’s heading there anyway. It was his home. He was a printer before the war. But he hasn’t wanted to go back since receiving a letter during the war that reported his wife had died and was already buried. But Kidd’s a responsible man, and he knows the girl’s best shot at being delivered safely is with him.
Much of the film is his efforts to teach the girl English and get her to teach him things about herself and her life with the Kiowa. But before you begin to think that it’s not going to be particularly exciting, remember these are hard times, lawless times. Kidd has to fight off men who look at her and think how much money they could sell her for, as well as fight his way through communities governed by men who believe they are the law and can do whatever with whomever they please.
There are nuances in Jiles’ book that the limitations of a screenplay cannot capture. The most pleasant of these is Johanna’s growing confidence in Kidd’s allegiance, the quickness with which she learns how to help with meals, care for the horses and, when it’s critical, what can be substituted for shot in a shotgun shell.
This is Tom Hanks’ first western and he makes a most satisfying Captain Kidd. And the young German actress, 12-year-old Helena Zengel, is a marvel to watch. When they finally reach Castroville, her misery at being left with relatives she doesn’t know is almost palpable.
Those of you who have read Jiles book may be a bit disappointed in the abbreviated ending. But Jiles pulled the Kidd character out of a previous book, so maybe she’ll add him to a future one. This film should be here awhile. See you there.