By Leah Greenblatt
December 11, 2020 at 12:00 PM EST
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Credit: Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures

Nearly everything about News of the World follows the contours of a classic true-grit Western — hardscrabble characters, pioneer vistas, taciturn script. But Paul Greengrass’s sparse, raw-boned drama (in theaters Dec. 25) also feels like something else beneath the pearl-handled pistols and prairie dust: not so much a war movie as a post-war one, its whole psychology colored by the collective trauma of a young country still torn and battle-sore.

To carry those multitudes, the film has the steady, mournful squint of Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, now several years without his troops and traversing Texas as a news reader — a sort of one-man analog CNN, bringing the headlines of the day to any small town or settlement with enough residents to drop a few coins in his collection bowl.

It’s on one of those rounds in 1870 just outside Wichita Falls that he comes across a terrified girl (Helena Zengel) alone in an overturned wagon, her Black chaperone hung by unknown marauders. She only speaks Kiowa and a few snatches of her birth parents’ native German, but the official letter she carries lets Kidd fill in the blanks: Separated from her family in a raid and raised by her Native American captors, then reclaimed again by the government, she’s now effectively twice orphaned and due to be sent to living relatives further down South.

Kidd is not a man looking for a small companion, though the brusque indifference of the local bureaucracy doesn’t leave him much choice. Rather than abandon her to her fate at a way station clearly not designed for unaccompanied minors, he decides to deliver the girl himself. Those good intentions launch the pair on their quixotic journey — possibly a fool’s errand, part endurance test and part obstacle course —  across the treacherous plains of 19th-century Texas.

Greengrass, the British filmmaker who seems to toggle steadily between the broody international action of multiple Bourne movies and starker verité experiments like United 93 and 22 July, has worked with Hanks once before, on 2013’s Captain Phillips. And he frames his star in scene after scene of austere beauty, though his bare screenplay, co-penned with Luke Davies (Lion) from the 2016 novel of the same name by Paulette Giles, often isn’t much more than stations of the cross for its two main characters; a series of hurdles and hardships to overcome.

That’s where the requisite Hanks-ian gifts come in, the soul and heft of the 64-year-old actor’s presence imbuing every line and all the long silences in between. Berlin native Zengel, too, is remarkable, her fierce, lucid performance almost entirely contained in non-verbal cues and gestures. As two people stripped of home and human comforts and in some sense of hope, it’s inevitable that the storyline will cement their bond. In that, the movie offers few surprises and even less alacrity; and yet there's a cumulative weight to World that feels, if hardly new, still worth sitting through. Grade: B+

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