‘News of the World’ with Tom Hanks is satisfying comfort food in anxious times

Jan 15, 2021, 12:38 PM | Updated: 3:07 pm

With the ignominious demise of the Seahawks last weekend, it may finally be time to turn our attention to Hollywood.

Yes, movie theaters are still closed but, gradually, the film industry is coming to grips with the fact that movie premieres are just as likely to take place in your living room as on the red carpet. This week, Hollywood turns to the comfort food known as Tom Hanks. And in a Western, no less. Perhaps the perfect sop for our anxious times?

On the face of it, News of the World seems a misleadingly contemporary title for an old-fashioned Western that covers a lot of familiar territory. A kind of sidebar riff on the John Ford classic The Searchers, it tells the tale of a solitary man who’s unexpectedly saddled with ferrying a feisty 10-year-old girl across the frontier of 1870 Texas.

With that premise, it’s easy to predict the contours of the upcoming story. Let’s see, the man and girl start off very wary of each other but slowly become emotionally bonded? Check. The two of them face dangers from both leering bad guys and the harsh environment? Check. And finally, both of them are harboring secrets that are eventually revealed over the course of the film? Check and mate.

That’s the thing with comfort food; it can sometimes put you to sleep. You’re so familiar with what you’re eating that you don’t pay close attention to the flavors you’re consuming. And that’s certainly a risk in News of the World.

If the story’s general shape is a little too obvious, its particulars have some sharp and distinctive edges. For instance, Tom Hanks plays Captain Kidd, a former Confederate officer who’s traversing an angry, Confederacy-supporting Texas just five years after the Civil War. Tensions between the Union soldiers “occupying” the land and the resentful and aggrieved Texans provide the story’s backdrop. Any parallels with today’s divided nation are hinted at but not fully developed.

Kidd is something of an itinerant worker, one who travels from town to town reading various newspaper stories aloud to a paying audience, hence the title of the movie. At times, the news he brings is meant to distract his listeners from their own troubles. At other times, the news becomes a call to action.

Parallels with today’s competing definitions of what constitutes “news” may be hinted at but are similarly not developed (an unintended parallel is an epidemic that’s loose in the land).

Kidd’s 10-year-old charge, Johanna, is an immigrant German girl who’d been raised by members of the Kiowa tribe for most of her life. Having been unwillingly “rescued,” she was being escorted across Texas by a Black Union agent until that agent was set upon and lynched.

She yearns to return to her tribe, which is being driven out of the territory, but Kidd ends up deciding to return her to distant relatives living hundreds of miles away. Parallels with today’s racial and ethnic tensions are hinted at but, again, are not developed.

Director Paul Greengrass, who most recently worked with Hanks in the excellent Captain Phillips, is content to let any and all 21st century resonances stay in the background. He foregrounds, instead, the relationship between Kidd and Johanna. Their deepening connection is predictable but no less moving, and that’s mostly due to the acting chops of both Hanks and newcomer Helena Zengel.

Kidd is a natural fit for Hanks, who describes his character as a man burdened by his own decency (that’s actually an apt description for many of Hanks’ roles). And Zengel is entirely convincing as a wild child who doesn’t understand the world but instinctively knows how to navigate it.

News of the World revels in being familiar, not fresh; straightforward, not innovative; and soulful, not suspenseful. For a Western, it’s often better to be satisfying than exhilarating. That makes for quality comfort food.

More movie reviews from Tom Tangney

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‘News of the World’ with Tom Hanks is satisfying comfort food in anxious times