I understand if Tom Hanks is sick of being compared to Jimmy Stewart, having spent the better part of his career shouldering that burden, but with “News of the World,” he’s practically asking for it. Set in and around post-Civil War Texas, the new film is the kind of gritty, de-romanticized western drama that reignited Stewart’s career after World War II, darkening his persona while giving the actor plenty of anti-heroic meat to chew.
On the surface, it seems Hanks is up to something similar with the help of Paul Greengrass, a British director (the Jason Bourne movies, “Captain Phillips” with Hanks) dipping his toe in the genre for the first time. And “News of the World” is a gripping if episodic watch, a stark tale of civilized and uncivilized America struggling to see which one calls the shots. You could say the struggle continues to this day.
Hanks, bearded and bleary, plays Captain Jefferson Kidd, a one-time Confederate officer (13th Texas Infantry) now self-condemned to riding from town to town, reading the news from big city papers to local crowds at 10 cents a head. It’s a beguiling notion: Kidd’s a traveling town crier, and he feeds the public’s hunger for blood and thunder stories of peril, disaster, and rescue.
Journeying to his next appearance, he comes upon a lynched Black man and a traumatized white girl. A letter in their effects informs him that she is Johanna (Helena Zengel), taken by the Kiowa seven years earlier during a massacre of her German immigrant family. Her tribe now wiped out by the government, she is being escorted back to relatives; to a reluctant Kidd falls the duty of completing the trip. The girl speaks no English and howls for her lost community. Says an onlooker, “She’s an orphan twice over.”
Zengel, a young German actress, has a simmering stillness that draws the eye; Kidd and we are immediately invested in what she is thinking and feeling. The two touch down in a dusty frontier Dallas, where a saloon-keeper friend of the Captain’s (Elizabeth Marvel) speaks enough Kiowa to learn that the girl has grown up with the name Cicada. “Well, she’s Johanna now,” grumbles Kidd.
Buried in that line is the theme of “News of the World” — what to do in a land where rapacious frontier interlopers are erasing everyone and everything that doesn’t look like them. The movie’s based on a novel by Paulette Jiles, adapted by Greengrass and Luke James, and in scene after scene, Captain Kidd and Johanna/Cicada come up against men who believe it’s their divine destiny to take what they want and kill anyone in the way. Especially if they’re Black, Indian, or Mexican.
This leads to a tautly directed mid-movie stand-off in a canyon between Kidd and three men who want the girl for unspecified horrors, and to a later sequence in a town run by a grizzled dandy of a warlord (Thomas Francis Murphy) who publishes his own newspaper, with his own version of reality. A sly Fox indeed. “The war is over — we have to stop fighting sometime,” Kidd reminds him. “Oh, we will,” replies the warlord. “When [the country] is ours alone.”
Greengrass makes the chalk-line parallels between his movie’s world and ours without pressing the issue. He trusts that we’ll connect the dots and, besides, he wants to play with western conventions, like the dust storm that threatens to engulf the heroes at one point. “News of the World” is vibrant yet familiar, with its echoes of “The Searchers” and “Little Big Man,” and its best moments are ones we haven’t seen before: A crowd of rapt Texans booing Kidd’s news stories of President Grant — he’s the Devil, as far as they’re concerned — or Johanna calling out to a distant line of vanishing Kiowa to take her home.
It’s a well-made and thoughtful movie that doesn’t leave that much of a mark, and I think Tom Hanks is at the heart of why that is. I keep coming back to Stewart and the hard, broken men he played in those remarkable Anthony Mann westerns — “Winchester ’73” (1950), “Bend of the River” (1952), “The Naked Spur” (1953) — and remain in awe of the nerve with which the actor dismantled his “aw-shucks-Jimmy” image. The men he played were flawed, complex, scared, and messed up. Hanks’s Captain Jefferson Kidd, by contrast, is a good man, scarred by and repentant for his war years but in no danger of leaving the audience in suspense as to what he’ll do. He’s Tom Hanks. He’ll do the right thing. That’s why we trust him. And that’s why “News of the World” is a satisfying movie without ever becoming a great one.
NEWS OF THE WORLD
Directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Greengrass and Luke Davies, based on a novel by Paulette Jiles. Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel. At Kendall Square, suburbs. 118 minutes. PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, some language)