News of the World, 2020.
Directed by Paul Greengrass.
Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Tom Astor, Travis Johnson, Andy Kastelic, Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, and Elizabeth Marvel.
News of the World stars Tom Hanks as a Civil War veteran who finds himself trying to take a young girl home after she’s been freed from the Native American tribe that kidnapped her several years prior. Their journey is a rumination on what family and home mean to us, and the Texas landscape is one full of pitfalls in a post-war world where not everyone is okay with how that conflict ended. A modest selection of bonus features are included on the 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray discs, and a code for a digital copy was thrown in too.
Paul Greengrass’ News of the World, released late in 2020, is a film primarily concerned with notions of how we define family and home, but secondarily, it taps into notions that will likely resonate with a modern audience: How do we navigate a fractured society in which competing forces seek to define the way forward?
Set in 1870, the story stars Tom Hanks as Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes his way from town to town in Texas reading the news to people who pay ten cents each to hear him. As he travels to his next location, he comes across a young girl near an overturned wagon whose driver, a black soldier, has been murdered. He finds paperwork that gives her name as Johanna and says that she had been abducted by members of the Kiowa tribe and lived with them for several years before being taken back.
After a series of encounters in which it’s clear that others don’t want to deal with the girl, who doesn’t understand English and tries to run away multiple times, Kidd decides he will take her to her nearest living relatives. He discovers that she is of German descent, and he does his best to try to bring out any German words she knows while he teaches her some English and she shares her Kiowa language.
The journey is long and arduous, and the pair encounter several dangers along the way, including a trio of fellow Civil War veterans who want to buy Johanna and won’t take “no” for an answer and a town run by a militia leader who is trying to “cleanse” the air of any non-whites. Slowly, Kidd and Johanna learn to trust each other, and the loneliness of their respective places in the world leads to the question of whether they should remain together.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Hanks, even dating back to his Bosom Buddies days, and here he turns in another strong performance. He was a great choice to play this role, because despite the horrors Kidd faced in the war, he came through with his sense of decency intact. Sometimes all an angry, misunderstood child needs is one adult to try to connect with them, and that’s the role he plays here as he tries to do what’s right for Johanna. He is tempted several times to simply leave her somewhere and hope for the best, but his sense of morality won’t let him do so.
Likewise, Helena Zengel shines in her international debut, after several years of work in the German entertainment industry. While she sometimes lays on the feral behavior a bit thick, she’s an earnest young actor who’s able to convey the pain and loneliness of a child who has been twice orphaned, as Kidd is told at one point in the story.
Even the story world is a compelling one. It’s easy to assume that after the Civil War, everyone decided to be one big happy United States family, but of course that wasn’t true, and that’s in display here. The Union soldiers who patrol Texas towns aren’t wanted around there, and various forms of bigotry are on full display.
The Kiowa aren’t represented in simple terms either. They committed murder when they took Johanna, but they were also victims of violence when she was taken back. They appear twice in the film, and both times they appear almost as it’s a dream – while the idea of the mysterious Native American may be a bit of a cliché, the notion works here, since they represent an unknown element of the journey.
Actual members of the Kiowa tribe were used in the film, as discussed in the four-minute bonus feature The Kiowa. Director and co-writer Paul Greengrass, as well as producer Gary Goetzman, talk about their involvement and what it meant to the production.
The rest of the bonus features, which are found on the UltraHD disc as well as the Blu-ray platter, include:
- Deleted scenes (11 minutes): Unfortunately, there’s nothing identifying where in the film these would be found, nor why they were cut, but you can more or less guess where they would have shown up. Most of them were obviously cut because they were more of the “nice to have” than “must have” variety, although a short bit where Johanna refuses to get on Kidd’s horse with him after he first meets her would have been helpful, since my first question when they headed off together was, “Why is she walking next to the horse?”
- Partners: Tom Hanks & Helena Zengel(7 minutes): The stars talk about working together, and others involved in the production weigh in too. Hanks was clearly a pleasure to work with, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. I wish there were more people like him in the entertainment industry.
- Western Action (7.5 minutes): At its heart, News of the World is an old-fashioned western film, and that aspect of it is explored here.
- Paul Greengrass Makes News of the World (11 minutes): Greengrass follows up on the previous piece by talking specifically about his desire to make a western, since he watched so many of those movies as a kid. John Ford is cited, unsurprisingly, as a major influence on him.
- Commentary: Greengrass is solo for this track. It’s a good overall discussion of the film. Given the lack of an in-depth making-of piece, this is as close as you’ll get to something meatier than the other bonus features, which mostly skim the surface. (For example, none of them talk about the novel on which the film is based.)
The bonus materials appear on both discs. While it tends to be more common for Ultra HD discs to be bare bones so the bonus features don’t encroach on the video quality, that doesn’t seem to be an issue here. Since this is a recent film, the image is pretty much theater quality here. Even the accompanying Blu-ray is solid.
A code for a digital copy is also included.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★★ / Movie: ★★★★