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'News of the World' review: Tom Hanks' first Western is a winner

Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd in

Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd in Universal Pictures' "News of the World", co-written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Credit: Universal Pictures/Bruce W. Talamon

PLOT After the Civil War, a traveling newsreader takes an orphaned girl under his wing.

CAST Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Thomas Francis Murphy

RATED PG-13 (some violence)

LENGTH 1:53

WHERE In theaters Dec. 25. Available on demand on Jan. 15.

BOTTOM LINE Hanks’ first Western is a winner, rich with relevant themes and ideas.

In "News of the World," Tom Hanks plays Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Union soldier who has become the 19th-Century equivalent of a television anchorman. "No time for reading the newspapers, am I correct?" he asks the audience in whatever town he’s visiting. With a lantern, a reading glass and the latest broadsheets, Kidd is Walter Cronkite in a frock coat, transmitting information as efficiently as the day’s technology will allow.

Written by director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies from Paulette Jiles’s novel, "News of the World" goes on to put Kidd in charge of a German immigrant girl adopted by the Kiowa, a plot borrowed directly from John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece "The Searchers" (itself based on a novel, by Alan LeMay). The two movies are mirror images — John Wayne played a former Confederate soldier who hunts and exterminates, while Hanks plays a former Union soldier who educates and illuminates — but both films face ugly truths about the storied American West. Where "The Searchers" focused on racism and genocide, "News of the World" is concerned with division, distrust and disinformation.

The girl in this story, Johanna, is a compelling and sorrowful figure, caught between two enemy cultures and unwanted by either. She’s played in a mostly silent but fiercely expressive performance by Helena Zengel, a young German actress. Truth be told, though, the character serves mostly to give Kidd a purpose, and to help us see a fractious, postwar America through innocent eyes. (As for Hanks, he’s a natural, of course, in the role of the innately noble and good-hearted Kidd. What took this modern-day Jimmy Stewart so long to make his first Western?)

The best sequences in "News of the World" — Hanks’ second outing under Greengrass, following "Captain Phillips" — function as discrete mini-movies. Several human traffickers, drawn to Johanna’s fair skin, chase our heroes up a hillside, leading to a showdown as desperate as anything in the "True Grit" films. Later, an isolated outpost ruled by a backwoods despot, Merritt Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), evokes the same death-cult atmosphere as Colonel Kurtz’s jungle fiefdom in "Apocalypse Now." This vignette, in which Kidd refuses to read Farley’s bogus propaganda publication, is the centerpiece of the film and its most pointed commentary on the present day.

The rugged panoramas of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and its surroundings, shot in grand style by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ("The Martian"), give this movie the look and feel of a classic Hollywood Western. Its ending is classic as well, perhaps even a little too tidy given everything that’s come before. What lingers, though, is a portrait of a complicated and contentious America, indivisible and somehow impossible to reconcile.

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