News of the World
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel
We have seen in recent times heart-tugging stories of how men have bonded with children, children whom the adults have never seen before or have had any kind of relationship. In Palmer (reviewed in these columns), for instance, we watch an ex-convict growing fond of a little lad. Salman Khan’s Pawan Kumar makes it his mission in Bajrangi Bhaijaan to unite a seemingly mute girl with her family in Pakistan, a journey fraught with peril. Director Paul Greengrass (known for works like The Bourne Supremacy, Captain Phillips and 22 July) has a touching tale of an American Civil War Captain in News of the World, streaming on Netflix.
Handsomely mounted, the film– written by Greengrass along with Luke Davis from a 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles – is basically a long journey across the plains of Texas, but is made dynamically exciting by what happens to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former member of the Confederate Army. It is 1870, the war is over and slavery abolished, leaving southerners, who relied on Negro slaves to work on their cotton plantations, frustrated, angry and on the verge of poverty. Crime was on the rise, and whites killed native Americans or the original settlers hoping to drive them away.
Kidd travels, stopping at every town to read news from the dailies, charging 10 cents from every listener. One summer afternoon, he comes across a little girl, cowering behind a bush, so frightened and anguished that she refuses to speak. She is Johanna (Helena Zengel), whose German migrant family had been butchered by Kiowa Native American warriors. They had taken her away, but is left abandoned when her captors are killed by white criminals.
It falls on Kidd to take care of Johanna, who knows German and Kiowa, but not English, till he finds her relatives, who live 400 miles away. The unlikely pair trudge along the vast American plains, with the child who had witnessed enough bloodshed and gore, gradually forming a bond with the Captain.
The script has enough drama to not let the narrative sag. There is one terrific moment when after a reading session three thugs accost Kidd pressuring him to sell Johanna. Kidd had turned into a man of peace, and but left with no choice – be killed or kill – he takes up his gun to silence the vicious sex traffickers.
There is one more instance when Kidd stands facing death, and Greengrass expertly handles the situation with Johanna stepping in to keep her saviour safe. The scene is replete with tension, but is a turning point where Johanna finally begins to feel a sense of paternal affection for the man.
It is not very hard to guess how the News of the World would wind down, but helmed with hauntingly beautiful sensitivity – with the relationship between the two developing in an unhurried way – it is a work that will stay with us for a long time. Zengel is superb as the girl battered and bruised by the war, her parents gone in the most dastardly way. She must forget all that, Kidd says. She must be allowed to create new memories, he adds in a role played out with sheer brilliance. But of course!
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is a movie critic and author of a biography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan)