There are few pleasures in moviegoing — even if “going” is only to the couch — that are as pure as watching Tom Hanks. The embodiment of America’s moral compass, Hanks is never better than when he’s burrowing into a meaty role, as he does as a war-weary traveler in the soulful Western drama “News of the World.”
Hanks plays Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Confederate officer who now — now being 1870 — journeys from town to town across Texas, reading stories from the out-of-town newspapers to audiences. Those crowds, for a dime apiece, learn from Kidd about floods a few counties over, the discussions of the state legislature, or heartwarming stories from such far-off lands as Pennsylvania.
It’s a lonely existence, but one that suits Kidd. We learn, gradually, that Kidd left a wife in San Antonio when he went off to fight in the Civil War — and, even though the war has been over for five years, he has not gone back.
On the road, Kidd comes across a destroyed wagon, a lynched Black man and a 10-year-old white girl (played by 12-year-old German actor Helena Zengel, a real find). Kidd discovers some papers that tell him the story: The girl’s immigrant parents were killed by Kiowa Indians, who kidnapped the girl and raised her for several years — until soldiers killed the Kiowa, and took the girl to be reunited with her remaining family in Castroville, some 400 miles away. Kidd learns the girl’s name is Johanna, but he also learns that she speaks only Kiowa and isn’t interested in going anywhere.
After failing to find anyone else for the job, Kidd agrees to transport Johanna to Castroville, though he has to stop along the way to read the news, which is Kidd’s only source of income. In a series of episodes on the road, Kidd must protect Johanna from a menacing child trafficker (Michael Angelo Covino) and dodge a tyrannical town boss (Thomas Francis Murphy) who demands Kidd read the local newspaper he publishes — to keep the rabble from getting any ideas about the outside world.
“News of the World” marks a reunion between Hanks and director Paul Greengrass, who worked together in the 2013 hostage drama “Captain Phillips.” Here, as in that film, Greengrass (who co-wrote with Luke Davies, adapting Paulette Jiles’ novel) grounds the film in a feeling of authenticity — the towns Kidd and Johanna visit feel genuinely muddy, and tense from white Texans feeling resentful of the Reconstruction-era Union troops keeping the peace.
What “News of the World” also has in common with “Captain Phillips” is that in both, Hanks is quietly powerful without being showy. His Kidd is battling personal demons, which involve his wife and his guilt over what he did during the war. Kidd also finds, in this twice-orphaned child, a kindred spirit — someone who’s adrift in a big world, and suspicious of those trying to circumscribe their lives. Hanks’ performance reminds us how moving he can be, and anchors “News of the World” with a gentle but firm power as captivating as the Western skies under which Kidd and Johanna ride.
‘News of the World’
Tom Hanks is quietly moving in this gorgeous Western, as a former Confederate officer who encounters a little girl who needs his help.
Where • Theaters where open.
When • Friday, Dec. 25.
Rated • PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language.
Running time • 118 minutes.