Every showman has their backstage ritual, the kind that opens the Tom Hanks Western News of the World. The setting is Texas, 1870, Hanks cast as a seasoned performer getting ready for a rowdy full house. But beyond them waits another crowd — us. Squint and it isn’t hard to see Hanks himself once more about to meet his public, preparing to do the thing he does.
The last time he worked with director Paul Greengrass, the result was the kinetic Captain Phillips. Now, he plays a dramatic forebear, civil war veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, the latest in the actor’s long catalogue of good men under pressure. A Western as his platform makes perfect sense — the most old-world of genres in which to claim a continued place for this kind of character and this kind of story, each as wilfully, obstinately decent as the other.
Kidd’s shtick is old-world too, travelling here and there to deliver readings from newspapers. The show is a cheap popular entertainment, mere word from faraway towns bringing the promise of escape. (The film has a similar pitch, a big-league Hollywood movie arrived on Netflix for locked-down audiences to watch from halfway up the nearest wall.)
The first front page sees the crowd deflate. Meningitis is sweeping the Panhandle. Soon after, rage greets a reference to Yankee government, five years after Confederate surrender. Mention of epidemics in the script is coincidence. A divided America is at the heart of the film.
The perils of the country become clear once Kidd rides on into the landscape of cactus, sage and murder. Amid the wreckage hides a lone 12-year-old girl (Helena Zengel). German by birth, her given name is Johanna. But kidnapped as an infant by the Kiowa tribe, she now belongs in two cultures at once — or none at all. Kidd — being Hanks — alights on the right thing and sets out to return her home. Then comes the first complication in his simple plan: what is home now anyway? Hold that thought. All manner of more urgent hazards soon present themselves.
The ground is dangerous for Greengrass as well. If the premise remixes True Grit and The Searchers, it does so for modern audiences whose expectations of Westerns have been sharpened to a point by the brutal novels of Cormac McCarthy. Yet the story toys too with the memory of altogether light-spirited odd couples. Get the balance wrong and disaster awaits. Blood Meridian meets Midnight Run is not a film anyone wants, even in lockdown.
“Got a wild look about her,” a character says of Johanna, and looks prove the least of it as Zengel lets out a yowl. The actress broke through last year in the punkish German indie movie System Crasher — her Roman candle fury there serving a different purpose. Here, with only a handful of actual lines, her performance is a multi-dimensional marvel — 4ft of bedlam and a mournful parentless child, caught between worlds. Hanks’s charisma can reduce his colleagues to bit players. Not for nothing is his best known co-star a volleyball. Zengel is his equal.
But Hanks is the reason we’re here. To picture anyone else as Kidd is impossible and not just because the role is so definitively Hanksian. That logic is circular. The film demands a lead who can speak plausibly of the need to move past bad blood and aspire to basic kindness — sentiments that from the mouths of most other actors would set off anaphylaxis. Hanks, as so often, is all but unique in making goodness believable.
Kudos to Greengrass too. If everything in sight doubles as a metaphor, the story plays as pure human drama. And when the action cranks, this famously gifted director of mayhem slips into gear — with a twist. The trademark of his Bourne movies was perpetual motion. Here, gunfights unfold in menacing stillness, a pin-drop waiting game. For those of us making do without cinema, Greengrass’s flair for the widescreen may prompt a pang. His Texas is a place of terror and wonders, not least the sandstorm from which emerges a ghostly Native American caravan, the dust leaving the scene looking like a sepia photograph.
Yet for all the spectacle, the point is the value of words. Not journalism per se, even as the movie spotlights a thuggish proto-press baron (“editor, publisher, businessman and lawgiver”). What’s at stake is simpler still — the power of common language, a means by which we can understand each other, and discover even at this late hour that more unites than divides us. The feat of this sturdy, admirable film is to make such hopeful noise sound not just reasonable — but radical.
On Netflix from February 10 in the UK and many other countries; available to rent on digital platforms such as Google and Amazon in the US