Word travels slow in News of the World

Tom Hanks is one of the most reliable actors of his generation.

Exhibit A: News of the World.

Set in 1870, Hanks plays a former member of the Confederate army, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who works as a newsreader. Kidd travels by cart from town-to-town reading newspapers to local crowds for a small fee.

What’s making news? Pandemics, political instability and a new president; it’s all way too familiar when you consider what’s news in 2021.

During a reading in a southern town, the pro-Confederate crowd rages when they hear about the amendments to the U.S. constitution, which includes the abolition of slavery. Kidd calms the crowd by providing context: “these are difficult times.”

Hanks is stoic in these moments when he’s bridging the gap between facts and public opinion. Kidd even tweaks the news items he reads in each town – an old school version of Facebook’s news algorithm – to suit the audience; during one reading he only picks good news stories to provide the crowd with an escape from reality. Like the nightly news on television, it’s a mixture of theatre and current affairs.

But what doesn’t make the news? That lands in Kidd’s cart in the form of a white girl in native American clothing named Johanna (Helena Zengel). The progress of America is dependent on the displacement of its indigenous population, and Johanna is a survivor of the collateral damage. Kidd must reunite Johanna with her surviving relatives and they become an unlikely duo looking for their place in a country that’s rapidly changing and being torn apart around them at the same time. Even the presence of Hanks surrounded by mostly unknown actors enhances the sense of isolation Kidd and Johanna experience.

The relationship between the news and what’s happening in each community fractured by the Civil War is the most fascinating part of News of the World. Throughout, Hanks is a constant reminder that you’re in capable hands even when the film trots along slowly, which is a change of pace for director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, Captain Phillips) who is best known for shaking up action cinema. Greengrass’ patience with the story evokes thoughtful westerns like Meeks Cutoff and True Grit with a colonial sprinkle of The Last of the Mohicans, but it requires a little fortitude.

Cameron Williams

News of the World is currently streaming on Netflix.

This review first appeared in BMA Magazine.