News of the World is a 2020 western drama.
10 out of 10 stars. This has now become my favorite Tom Hanks film. Beautifully scripted, expertly filmed, and sure to win a few awards.
It’s five years after the end of the Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a kindhearted Texas gentleman, travels from town to town disseminating news from local and world newspapers to anyone with a dime and the time to listen. But Jefferson does more than simply read the news. He makes the news into real stories about people like them and he chooses the stories that will make people cheer and feel pride for those who do right and uprise against those who do wrong. You see Texas was on the Confederate side of the war, so now the countryside is crawling with Union soldiers. Locals aren’t permitted to carry guns unless they’re loaded with bird shot. And highwaymen kill anyone who isn’t white.
Wichita Falls, Texas
In the beginning of the film we see Jefferson reading for a group in Wichita Falls which is in Northern Texas. He leaves the next day and comes across an overturned wagon with a blood trail on the ground leading to a grove of trees where a black man has been hanged. That man was a federal agent transporting a little girl who was held captive by the Kiowa tribe. He was taking her to her relatives in Southern Texas. The girl’s name is Johanna Lienberger and she speaks no English, only Kiowa. Not long after Jefferson finds her a Union troop passes by, stops, and interrogates him. He shows them his allegiance papers (all Confederates had to carry these) and explains how he just came across the hung federal agent and the little girl. The troop captain tells him to take the girl to the Red River post and hand her over to the Indian agent.
Red River, Texas
When Jefferson gets to Red River, the Indian agent is gone and won’t be back for three months. Jefferson has a choice, wait three months with the girl for the agent to return or take her to her family. Fortunately, he has friends in Red River, a former Confederate soldier under his command, so he takes Johanna to that man and his wife. That evening while Jefferson is reading the news, or should I say spinning the news, Johanna runs away. As soon as he finds out, he begins searching the countryside for her in the rain. He finds her on a cliff calling out to her tribe who are on the other side being escorted away by soldiers. He takes her back to his friend’s home and gets her warm. In the morning they leave together heading south to her aunt and uncle in Castroville.
Their next stop is the bustling city of Dallas. He knows a woman there who runs a boarding house. Her name is Mrs. Gannett. She gives them food and two rooms and speaks Kiowa. She tells Jefferson Johanna’s Kiowa name is Cicada. Her Kiowa family were murdered by the soldiers who came to take the Kiowa tribe to the reservation. When Jefferson tells her that he doesn’t know how to take care of a child, Gannett tells him, “She’s alive and that ain’t nothing.”
Unknown to Jefferson, one of the Union soldiers who saw him and the girl is part of a network of pimps who buy and sell children for pedophiles. Three of these pimps, led by a Mr. Almay, watch Jefferson read the news that evening and afterward, offer him $50 for Johanna. When Jefferson refuses they get rough and threaten to just take her. Then a Union soldier comes by and holds Almay and his men because they’re carrying weapons. Jefferson takes Johanna to the wagon and they immediately leave town, trying to get distance between them and the pedophile pimps.
By the next morning, Almay and his friends have caught up to them and they take a stand on a rocky outcrop. Jefferson’s soldier friend gave him his war pistol with 20 bullets. His rifle only has bird shot. And those 20 bullets get spent really fast. When he tells Johanna to run for it and shows her that the rifle shells are filled with bird shot, she gets the dimes from the wagon and fills the shells with the dimes. Jefferson uses them to kill the three pedophiles and get away.
Erath Country, Texas
So far, other than the pedophile ring, things have been not as dangerous as Jefferson expected. The roads to Castroville are notorious for highwaymen, white supremacists, and Confederate soldiers who kill anyone who looks Northern. Those evil men live in Erath County. After Dallas, Jefferson and Johanna finally hit Erath County and are “arrested” by the local mayor who controls every part of that town. He publishes his own paper bragging about how he and his men have “cleansed” the countryside of blacks, Indians, Mexicans, and Union soldiers. Jefferson doesn’t want to read this, so instead he reads a Harper’s Bazaar magazine article about coal miners in Pennsylvania who rise up against the privileged few who aren’t making the mine shafts safe and are killing them. The audience gets riled up and starts fighting the mayor’s men. Jefferson grabs Johanna and gets as far as the horses and wagon. The mayor and his men reach them before they can escape. The mayor holds a gun to Jefferson and intends on killing him, so Johanna grabs Jefferson’s rifle and shoots the mayor, but the second shot misfires. The mayor has two henchmen with him. One of them prepares to kill Johanna. The other one shoots him to protect the girl and Jefferson. He had an axe to grind against the mayor who killed his brother for talking too much. So they give John Calley a ride out of town. When they part ways, Jefferson to head through Kiowa territory to Johanna’s aunt and uncle and Calley with a wagon train headed north, Jefferson gives him the magazine with the miner story and Calley gives him a gun so he can protect Johanna in Kiowa territory.
Kiowa Territory, Texas
As they ride through Kiowa Territory, Jefferson has Johanna sing a Kiowa song to keep them from being attacked. Then they eventually reach Johanna’s Kiowa home. Her family are all gone and she realizes Jefferson is her family now. So they keep heading south.
As they are going down a steep hill, one of the wheels begins making a scraping sound spooking the horse in front. The horse speeds up which makes the wheel worse until Jefferson and Johanna have to jump from the wagon before it goes over a cliff. One horse is killed. The other terribly maimed. So Jefferson kills it. Now they’re on foot.
They walk through what is basically a desert until a sandstorm separates them. Then a Kiowa group passes by them. Johanna approaches them and comes back with a horse. I can only imagine how that conversation went. They ride the rest of the way to Castroville.
The Lienbergers are not nice people. They’re from Germany (the old country) and are strict. Children are meant to work hard and be obedient. While Mrs. Lienberger gives Jefferson the graphic details of her sister’s family’s murders (Johanna’s family), Mr. Lienberger is angry because Johanna represents another mouth to feed. But Jefferson leaves her there anyway, assuming that Mrs. Lienberger will come to love Johanna. That’s a big ask.
San Antonio, Texas
After leaving Johanna, Jefferson continues south to San Antonio. He hasn’t been there since the war ended. He survived the war to come home to his wife and she died of cholera mere months before he returned. So now he needs to finally visit her grave. But once he does, he realizes Johanna belongs with him. He rides back to Castroville at a gallop and finds Johanna tied by the ankle to a rope so she can’t run. He unties her and tells her she belongs with him. That’s how they come to be a family.
In the last scene, Johanna has new clothes and is sitting in the room with Jefferson as he reads the news. He’s telling of an incident in which a man was buried alive and then rose from his grave in the middle of a wedding. The audience is laughing and Johanna is doing the sound effects.
10 out of 10 stars. This is a beautiful family story. Bad things happens. It’s how we deal with them that makes the difference.