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Universal Studios

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A storyteller with heart

News of the World delivers a lesson in empathy for an embittered world

The latest Tom Hanks vehicle, News of the World, is set in the 1800s: It’s a few years after the Civil War, and the greatest argument in our nation’s history has been settled through the bloody clash of state against state, brother against brother. But that doesn’t mean America has put resentment and division behind it. 

No one knows this better than Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks). He rides a circuit of Western outposts, synthesizing stories from newspapers all across the country and retelling them in engaging fashion to disconnected townsfolk who pay a dime a head to gather and listen. He is, in essence, an Old West version of a news anchor. 

Kidd is so good in his role that he manages to persuade a group of bitter Texas isolationists to see themselves in the suffering and triumph of some Yankee coal miners. He needs every ounce of his rhetorical and martial skills when he agrees to transport an orphaned German girl, living with the Kiowa tribe so long she’s forgotten her native language, to her relatives in Texas.

As Kidd and little Johanna (Helena Zengel) make their way across the dusty trails, the film becomes a classic odyssey story. Each town, each bend in the road, offers some new threat to escape or riddle to solve. Yet within this simple, quiet plot is a world of emotional complexity.

Hanks has already shown he’s more than capable of carrying an action-heavy film, but News of the World—originally in theaters, then to video on demand platforms—proves he can successfully channel his inner Eastwood as well. He trades fire and steely barbs with a pack of outlaws without sacrificing any of his innate fatherliness and warmth. (The shootouts, mild for the genre, and a few instances of profanity earn a PG-13 rating.) 

But Kidd’s more important weapon is empathy. “I hear you. We’re all hurting,” he tells a mob of angry ex-Confederates. It’s hard to recall any other recent film hero making a connection with characters like this. Other scriptwriters likely would have established Kidd’s goodness by having him give a blistering speech of condemnation. But of course he can’t: He was a Confederate too.

Perhaps that’s why, when confronted with the horror of how Johanna came to lose her family and live with a Native tribe—there are whispers of defenseless throats cut, babies brains dashed out—he’s able to counsel, if not forgiveness, at least a determination not to pursue perpetual enmity. He knows the past always provides enough sin to go around, and the only hope for the future is for everyone to move forward with grace.

—This story appears in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue under the headline “Circuit storyteller.”

Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story since its original posting to reflect that Capt. Kidd takes Johanna to live with relatives in Texas.

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Netflix


Netflix

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Journey in the Arctic

A self-reliant doctor learns the importance of relationships in The Midnight Sky

Dr. Augustine is a solitary man. When a global catastrophe strikes and other personnel abandon an Arctic Circle observatory, Augustine (George Clooney) prefers to remain behind, on his own, content with his whiskey and his medicine. But is he truly alone? Relationships are the theme of The Midnight Sky, an entertaining new Netflix film. 

As disaster spreads around planet Earth, the spaceship Aether is returning after two years from K-23, an inhabitable moon orbiting Jupiter. Most crew members are eager to get home: Recorded holograms of their families and friends can’t replace real relationships. Since they left K-23, they’ve been unable to communicate with NASA, fellow spaceships, or anyone else back on Earth.

Soon after the others have evacuated the observatory, Augustine finds a little girl left behind, Iris, who will not—or cannot—talk. Desperate to connect with the crew of the Aether, he takes the child with him on a cold and dangerous journey to a weather station he hopes will enable communication to the voyagers.

The travelers in the Arctic narrowly escape treacherous ice breakups, blizzard conditions, and wolf attacks. (The PG-13 film contains a few frightening scenes and two instances of blasphemy.)

The Midnight Sky is really more about what makes us human than about dazzling adventure. People need relationships with family, friends, and fellow travelers on their journey through life. It’s a lesson even the isolated Dr. Augustine must learn.

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Disney/Pixar


Disney/Pixar

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Soul gets life right

Pixar’s latest may be a bigger hit with adults than kids

There was never any question that families were going to rush to stream Pixar’s latest release when it debuted on Disney+ on Christmas Day. But I have a hunch that, worthwhile as it is as an artistic exercise, Soul won’t be on constant repeat in minivans across the country. 

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher still holding on to dreams of jazz greatness. But after years of having the door slammed in his face, he’s on the verge of settling for what he considers a mediocre life. That’s the moment his big break finally comes—a musical legend invites him to play piano with her quartet.

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