REVISION: “Find where you belong,” reads the tagline for this screen adaptation of a 2016 novel of the same name. And it’s this quest that propels award-winning “News of the World” director Paul Greengrass through barren and hostile terrain, symbolizing a very hostile post-Civil War era in 1870 America.
A former soldier, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is now a man on a new mission. He makes his living going from town to town, reading the news of presidents and queens, glorious disputes, devastating catastrophes and exciting adventures from around the world. While traveling through Texas, he meets Johanna (Helena Zengel), a 10-year-old orphan girl. She can barely communicate and only speaks Kiowa due to her former captors, who raised her as one of their own. Kidd reluctantly takes it upon himself to transport the girl where she belongs. Thus, a dangerous journey begins, not only fraught with danger, but also with an uncommon connection between the two, who, in effect, are both looking for a place they can call home.
Compared to their last outing, ‘Captain Phillips,’ this Greengrass and Hanks reunion is far less exciting, but the element of surprise and fear is firmly ingrained here as well. It comes from the uncertainty of the journey of the two central characters, who can barely communicate with each other. But as they go, a comforting bond begins to form and it feels extremely organic. The aftermath of the civil war is cleverly described in every department of filmmaking, from the costumes to the native accents to the dull, dusty and dimly lit surroundings of crowded bars and hallways, where Kidd reads his stories in the newspapers . Wide shots of dry desserts and rocky terrain complement the brooding narrative that unfolds in long, verbose scenes of the characters walking, talking, and riding horses. But amidst these, there are also bursts of thrills and well-crafted action scenes that are unpredictable and exciting. A strong background score adds to the overall impact. Some of the lines delivered by Hanks are superbly written. Like when he explains a newspaper article to a wide-eyed Johanna saying, “Do you see all those words printed on one line one after another? Put them all together and you have a story. “
Most of the engagement comes from nuanced writing by Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies and an expected and thoughtful performance by Hanks. His off-screen personality immediately makes his character’s inherent goodness believable and Helena Zengel compliments him thoroughly. She chooses to portray Johanna’s various pent-up emotions with a straight face and tough exterior, but that doesn’t stop her from projecting her character’s vulnerability, when necessary. Zengel does it simply with his expressive eyes. It’s fascinating to watch the two anchor, given that one is a rookie and the other a celebrity veteran.
‘News of the World’ is a slow-burning road movie with its fair share of bumps along the way, but most of them just make this introspection trip worthwhile.