#NativeNerd Review: 'News of the World'

Vincent Schilling

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel portray a troubling story of a young non-Native girl kidnapped by the Kiowa. It was great, with one unavoidable, glaring problem

Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

This Christmas, Universal Pictures is set to release a film starring Tom Hanks as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former Civil War officer that travels the country reading news articles to townspeople willing to drop a dime into a coffee can.

In the plains of Texas, Captain Kidd comes across a young girl Johanna, played by Helena Zengel, a Norwegian that had been abducted by the Kiowa people years before. After the story unfolds, Kidd must decide if he should return the girl to her estranged family or even possibly, back to the Kiowa people, whom Johanna considers family and had learned the language, tribal customs and more.

The film tells an immersive and anxiety-ridden tale set in the old west, a land filled with lawbreakers and outcasts. The two get into trouble numerous times, not at their fault, and any viewer is sure to remain engaged as Kidd stumbles on learning the Kiowa words uttered by Johanna and vice-versa.

The one glaring problem

The film was going great, until one particular scene. As a Mohawk man, I cannot attest to how well Johanna managed the Kiowa language, but I am hopeful her words were legitimate. I suspect she did the best she could.

I didn’t really have a problem with the possibility that tribal people such as the Kiowa might actually take a young child into their care. Historically, the Mohawk people were known to take non-Native children into the tribe who had been left at the border by families that did not want them.

But then the scene in the food establishment took place. Why did the director (think that as a young girl taught by Native people) think that to be Native means smearing stew all over your face while refusing to use a spoon? OK, perhaps she might not have liked a spoon, but I was really annoyed that Johanna literally shoves her hand into the stew as if being a total slob equates to being an Indian.

This was a very poor choice the director, Paul Greengrass, allowed to take place. It affected me for the rest of the film.

'News of the World' poster

News of the World
8.5 out of 10

Synopsis: Five years after the end of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a veteran of three wars, now moves from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller, sharing the news of presidents and queens, glorious feuds, devastating catastrophes, and gripping adventures from the far reaches of the globe. In the plains of Texas, he crosses paths with Johanna (Helena Zengel, System Crasher), a 10-year-old taken in by the Kiowa people six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Johanna, hostile to a world she’s never experienced, is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle against her will. Kidd agrees to deliver the child where the law says she belongs. As they travel hundreds of miles into the unforgiving wilderness, the two will face tremendous challenges of both human and natural forces as they search for a place that either can call home.

As far as the rest of the film went, Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel really did a wonderful job of telling a heartwarming story. And truth be told, Hanks is likely to get an Oscar nomination or even the coveted award for best actor.

I loved the trajectory, exploring new points of view, delving into new familial relationships, and a multitude of other threads to include exploring other cultures and racism during the time.

There is a troubling scene that indicates the killing of a family including women and a baby, with the idea that the Kiowa could have done it -- which I also found troubling, but the reference was cloudy and non-specific.

I don't suspect the director had ill-intent in the film's representation of Native people. His heartfelt message to reviewers felt sincere in that he wanted to show a story of a country striving to find unity. 

But all said, I just couldn’t let the stew-thing go.

The story was a really good one, but sometimes a glaring foul can disrupt the entire message. And in this case, it did.

"News of the World" is directed by Greengrass (the Bourne films, United 93) from his screenplay with Luke Davies (Lion), based on the National Book Award finalist and best-selling novel by Paulette Jiles. The film is produced by Gary Goetzman (Mamma Mia! franchise, Greyhound), Gail Mutrux (The Danish Girl, Donnie Brasco) and Gregory Goodman (22 July, 8 Mile). The executive producers are Steven Shareshian and Tore Schmidt. The film’s music is by eight-time Academy Award® nominee James Newton Howard.

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Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor at Indian Country Today. He enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics, and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling. TikTok @VinceSchilling. Email: vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com.

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