Cynthia Ann Parker was about nine years old when she was taken by Comanche warriors during an attack on her family’s settlement. She lived with the Native American tribe for 24 years, married into it, and eventually had Comanche children. When she was finally “saved” by Texas Rangers, she hardly recognized her old way of life or the culture she was thrust back into. Her fate was a tragedy, but her story became the stuff of legend, even inspiring one of the greatest Westerns ever made, John Ford’s The Searchers.
The legacy of Ford’s epic, as well as the real Cynthia, weighs heavily on Paul Greengrass’ News of the World, an unexpectedly tender and affectionate drama about a “rescuer” and the European child he’s discovered some years after she was taken and assimilated into a Kiowa tribe.
But whereas Ford’s movie culminates in the rescue—and John Wayne’s choice to spare young Natalie Wood’s life, even as he abandons her to strangers in a strange house—that is only the beginning of News of the World. In truth, this is an inviting road movie that’s often as gingerly paced as Paper Moon with its newspaper man and Civil War veteran, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, getting to know the child he discovered in the wilderness.
Technically speaking, Tom Hanks’ genial and soft-spoken Kidd is barely a newsman by the film’s start. He was before the war and his service in the Confederacy. But after the first great conflict for America’s soul ended, he was left with nothing other than his intelligence and intuition for how to tell a good story: Which he does by riding around Texas, mid-Reconstruction, carrying newspapers and their revelations to enraptured small towns. Similarly, Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel) is no longer in the wild when Kidd discovers her along a desolate road in 1870.
She’s already been twice rescued (and twice orphaned) by the border wars between settlers and American Indians, and now she finds herself abandoned again by the ugliness of man. Her Black escort, who was being paid to take her to her aunt and uncle on the other side of the Texas panhandle, was ambushed and lynched. And Kidd, who’s never had a child of his own, is wary to take her burden on and complete the journey. Yet just like his need to spread the news to a wild land, he is compelled to protect this wild girl from unruly forces in all directions.
For a film that is essentially a two-hander for Hanks and Zengel, News of the World’s emphasis on journalism, right down to making it the movie’s title, is intriguing. There’s no way when Greengrass shot the film in 2019 that he and his collaborators could know about the horrors 2020 would unleash. Yet even as a 19th century aggregator of human interest stories, Hanks personifies an almost Capra-esque commitment to the desperate need for facts here.
Strikingly, the movie begins with Hanks reading from a small community’s pulpit about a nearby outbreak of meningitis taking 90 souls off to Jesus. And not one of Kidd’s congregation doubts the validity of what he reads. In fact, by focusing on the human interests of the day Kidd intentionally brings a sense of connectivity to a nation that is still deeply divided, as underscored by the U.S. Army soldiers keeping the peace at gunpoint five years after the war.
To note this story, set 150 years ago, mirrors our world today is an understatement. But one of the great strengths of News of the World is its desire to see the commonality and humanity of people, even in a moment of its arguably cruelest division.
Kidd fought for the Confederacy and a losing, grotesque cause that cost him his wife and career. Yet he clings to the news of the day, and the comfort of facts, to rebuild a sense of community. Similarly, the murkier realities of frontier violence between settlers and Native Americans is written on the face of Johanna. Divorced from the sweeping generalizations of broad statements about the past, here is a child derived from two cultures, and a victim of both which has left her bereft of family or community twice over.
Greengrass handles these elements with a delicate hand. A quieter film than most of his action-heavy output, News of the World is a character study that plays out pretty much how you might expect. But as Kidd might sense, the pleasure in that comes in its telling. And in the case of this film that is anchored by two remarkable performances.
Hanks is reliably steady and noble as Kidd, a man who’s seen great loss but has adapted with the times, and even created a peculiar career path for himself in the rough-hewn days of Reconstruction. Zengel is the revelation though as a young girl who speaks Kiowa, handfuls of German, and a smaller spattering of English. Eschewing the typical “feral child” clichés, Zengel makes for a compelling counterpart to Hanks as they embark on an odyssey of misadventures and self-discoveries.
The obstacles they encounter along the way are where Greengrass’ usual telltale signs appear. One sequence particularly, where Kidd and Johanna are pursued by the nastiest side of man, tenses with the spectacular dread Greengrass imbued throughout his and Hanks’ last collaboration, Captain Phillips. Elsewhere the director avoids the pat depiction of sleepy Old West living, instead choosing to bask in the chaos and vitality of life in a cattle town as Kidd and Johanna ride in beside a thousand steers.
The authentic world-building, especially in the rarely glimpsed setting of this country patching itself back together, makes News of the World’s tendencies to follow a predictable path a little disappointing. Additionally, the dueling themes of an unlikely, discovered family and spreading the good word of truth sometimes collide awkwardly, such as when Kidd picks a fight with one town’s local authority while trying to keep a low profile. The occasional CGI also leaves something to be desired.
Nevertheless, the journey it takes is so satisfying, one doesn’t mind if News of the World visits all the old familiar places. The film even makes time to reappraise them, like finding out what would’ve happened if John Wayne didn’t just walk away from Natalie Wood’s doorway, and if the Cynthia Parker legend didn’t have to be just another sad story from somewhere else out in the world.
News of the World opens on Christmas Day in the U.S. and on Netflix in the UK in 2021.