Civil war veteran, Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) avoids confronting his emotionally damaged life by giving public readings from newspapers. It seems strange to us that people would eagerly gather to listen with rapt focus as they do in News of the World, but lecturing and public speaking was highly valued and appreciated in that era. It didn’t matter what the subject was. In the rough country of postwar Texas, most could barely scrape out an existence. The eager attention of Kidd’s audiences is not an exaggeration. Entertainment of any sort was a rarity and illiteracy commonplace. In those days, the excellence of a speech was graded by its length—the longer, the better. The Gettysburg Address was considered shabby because it was so brief.
Captain Kidd’s plodding reality as an itinerant speaker is jarred from complacency when he comes across an abandoned white girl, Johanna (Helena Zengel). Stolen as a toddler, she’d been “rescued” from a Kiowa tribe being forcibly displaced from their homeland. On the trip to return her to her relatives, the man hired to escort Johanna is hung because he’s black, leaving her stranded. Kidd becomes a reluctant savior in the effort to return the courageous, belligerent girl to her relatives. This means traveling through dangerous country, and so ensues an exciting and harrowing odyssey for the pair. Along the way the two inadvertently begin to heal—the girl from the loss of her first and second family, Kidd from his estrangement to the wife he can’t talk about. I don’t do spoilers. All questions and mysteries are answered in the end.
There is much to admire in this film when it comes to production and storyline. If you’re done with the glut of all action-no-substance movies, this is the meal you’ve been hungering for. There were many standout supportive performances, but hotel owner Mrs. Garrett (Elizabeth Marvel) is my favorite. It goes without saying that this is another Hanks award worthy performance. Zengel’s prickly and ferocious Johanna is easy to feel compassion for even when she’s acting out her grief and loneliness. The costuming and settings are accurate. I bothered me that the captain didn’t cover his face during a dust storm. I had the same bugaboo about westerns when it comes to hard riding a horse then having it not break a sweat. But again, wranglers in movies are either ruled by animal control standards or their tender hearts. And I loved how Hanks rode with heel-down in the stirrups style.
In recent years we’ve been confronted by national upheaval and animosity, divisiveness, cruelty, racism, and violence. All of that is contained in this film, but the difference is its careful contrast of humanity and inhumanity, how two individuals confront circumstantial and environmental adversity, and through companionship, define the meaning of family. The unfolding story is thrilling and absorbing, but most of all, has an ending that had me leaving the theater uplifted and happy. We can all use a bit of that. I’ll buy it when released or brave Covid one more time to see it again.
M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)
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