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Family Movie Review: News of the World (PG-13)

‘News of the World’ offers a comforting Tom Hanks performance when we might need it most. Kernel Rating: 3.5 out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG-13       Length: 118 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 12+. This Western follows a Civil War veteran as he attempts to return a girl who was kidnapped to her remaining family. Various acts of violence punctuate the story: a child found near a hanged man’s body, shoot-outs and chases, sexual predators threatening the girl character, a horse dies after a carriage accident, newspaper illustrations of a Native American being scalped and a stack of dead buffalo, and the main character reads newspaper headlines to communities that include mentions of meningitis and a mine explosion. The characters visit a Texan town that is processing the hides of dead buffalo (gory work and animal parts are shown); visit the girl’s former home, which is splattered and soaked with blood from the killing of her relatives; and visit a cemetery. Adult characters are implied to spend the night together; various cursing and threatening language.

By Roxana Hadadi

Tom Hanks has been playing father figures and providing comfort to movie fans for so long that it might seem as if his latest, “News of the World,” isn’t particularly remarkable: Hanks is yet again portraying a man who becomes responsible for a child and works to protect her from dangerous strangers. But that would be to diminish the quiet power of “News of the World,” in which two societal outsiders come together to build a new home after theirs have been stripped away. It is a somewhat predictable storyline for the Western genre, but Hanks is so solid and has such good chemistry with his co-star, young actress Helena Zengel, that you’ll be willing to stick along for the ride.

In 1870, Civil War veteran Captain Kidd (Hanks) makes his living traveling around the country to small towns and outposts, unpacking newspapers he’s acquired along the way, and reading the “news of the world” to packed meeting rooms desperate to learn what is happening in the rest of the slowly growing United States. Kidd is almost like a live radio, injecting his news readings with liveliness, enthusiasm, and an intuitive sense of the kind of stories that will interest and enthrall people.

He also has a strong sense of honor, and when he comes upon a young girl next to an abandoned carriage with a hanged man’s body in a tree, he pieces together what has happened. From the papers with her, he learns that her name is Johanna (Zengel), and years before, the girl’s family of German settlers had been attacked and killed by the Kiowa, one of the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains. Johanna survived and was kidnapped by the Kiowa, but over six years, she became part of the tribe and was adopted by them. When Texans killed members of the tribe, though, and collected Johanna, she came to be lost—leaving her to be found by Kidd.

When Kidd realizes that the government liaison to the Native American community is gone on a trip for three months and Johanna would be left all alone in a strange place, he volunteers to escort her back to her aunt and uncle. She might not know her family, but they’re the only people she has left. So Kidd and Johanna set off together across Texas, struggling to communicate (she can speak Kiowa and some German, but very little English) and inherently at odds, since Johanna has no interest returning to people she doesn’t know. Kidd, for his part, is intent on protecting this innocent child, and won’t let anything get in his way.

Director Paul Greengrass sets obstacle after obstacle in front of Kidd, with varying degrees of impact. A chase scene between Kidd and Johanna vs. would-be kidnappers is thrilling and smartly uses the natural rock formations and landscapes of the West as features of the shoot-out; it succeeds wonderfully as the first real scene that relies on the former two trusting each other. Afterward, when Johanna celebrates in the Kiowa tradition by singing a victory song about Kidd and painting his horse, “News of the World” demonstrates that it can capture intimate moments of character development, too. The film mostly follows that rhythm, with big moments that put Johanna and Kidd in danger and then smaller denouements that show the growing bond between the two: the two of them ending up in a Texan town full of racists who immediately distrust Kidd; a dust storm that nearly separates them and blows Johanna away. But Johanna and Kidd keep coming back to each other, and that relationship resonates.

The script isn’t as solid as the performances Hanks and Zengel provide, and certain scenes that introduce threatening characters are written with vulgarity but not much depth: the kidnappers who repeat over and over again what they plan to do with Johanna, the racist Texan who boasts of killing Native Americans and tries to goad Kidd into telling stories of his own accomplishments instead of reading newspapers. Perhaps those interactions are meant to hammer home Kidd’s comparative heroism, but other scenes are more effective because of their silence: Johanna and Kidd crossing paths with a group of Native Americans during a dust storm; Kidd visiting a relative’s grave; Johanna returning to the cabin where she grew up.

What ultimately works best about “News of the World,” though, is the relationship between Johanna and Kidd, and the unlikely commonalities they discover in terms of their opinions about the purpose of life, the importance of community, and the shape of home. Hanks and Zengel craft a believable dynamic not only through humorous exchanges (her disgust when she tastes coffee he offers her, but her exuberance at sugar) but flickers of honesty that don’t need verbal communication to resonate (Johanna returning to Kidd during the dust storm instead of using the chaos to flee). “News of the World” is a film about the art of storytelling, but its heart is found in its message that the family you choose, rather than one to which you are born, is sometimes the one who sees you clearest and loves you most.

“News of the World” is playing in theaters.

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