“Captain Phillips” director Paul Greengrass casts Tom Hanks in his first western “News of the World” (** OUT OF ****) as a gray-bearded Civil War veteran who rides through Northern Texas and reads newspapers to audiences willing to pay ten cents. Strictly speaking, he isn’t the equivalent of a contemporary newscaster.

Instead, he’s more like those who read books for the benefit of the blind. A former officer in the Confederate Army, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd served with the Third Texas Infantry, and he has the wounds to prove it. Sadly, Kidd’s Maria wife died during the war from cholera, and our sexagenarian protagonist has embarked on a new occupation which heralds his gift of oratory.

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He leads a lonely existence, with friends scattered along dusty trails hither and yon. Kidd’s routine is turned upside down when he encounters an abandoned, 10-year-old girl running loose in the wilderness. The black trooper assigned to escort her to an Army relocation camp has been lynched.

The sign on his chest reads: “Texas Says No! This is White Man’s Country.” The daughter of German immigrants whose mother, father, and sister were butchered by ferocious Kiowa Indians, Johanna (newcomer Helena Zengel) has nowhere to run. Ironically, she identifies more with her former captors.

She speaks a mishmash of Kiowa and German, and Kidd struggles to develop her English language speaking skills. Greengrass and Oscar nominated co-scripter Luke Davies of “Lion” have adapted Paulette Jiles’ marvelous bestselling novel “News of the World,” but they cannot rival her splendid prose and penchant for obscure detail.

Once she joins up with Kidd, Johanna travels 400 miles with the old timer as he searches for her Teutonic kin. They survive a number of incidents, some more exciting than others. Hanks’ sterling performance, a weather-beaten supporting cast, authentic looking Old West towns, and “Dark City” lenser Dariusz Wolski’s atmospheric photography cannot offset the monotony that undermines this character-driven, PG-13 rated sagebrusher. Western buffs may gripe about the shortage of shootouts, but Tom Hanks fans should relish watching him ride tall in the saddle.

Although it takes place during the 1870s on the Texas frontier, “News of the World” doesn’t qualify as a traditional John Wayne western. The Duke did make one offbeat genre classic “The Searchers” (1956), with acclaimed superstar director John Ford, about a racist troubleshooter who rescued his niece from captivity among the Indians.

Ironically, he had vowed to kill her if he found the Indians had brainwashed her. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd emerges as far less complicated than Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers.” A widower who published a newspaper before the war, Kidd is a dutiful but decent fellow who hasn’t reconciled himself with his wife’s death.

Nevertheless, he ushers little Johanna as far as an Army station. The officer-in-charge notifies him that the Indian Agent who handles strays won’t be back for three months. Not for an instant does Kidd consider leaving the ten-year old to fend for herself around a notorious Army fort for any length of time. He decides to take the child to the agent himself. Along the way, Johanna and he forge a sense of respect and trust between them.

Essentially, “News of the World” amounts to a scenic road trip, a journey of hardship where adversity peels back layer upon layers to expose both protagonists and antagonists. “The Searchers” dealt with adults. Comparably, “News of the World” recalls another Wayne horse opera, “True Grit” (1969). Cantankerous Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) took a precocious female teen on a ride through Hades in search of her father’s cowardly killer.

The tweener in “News of the World” also reminded me of the munchkin with whom crusty Gregory Peck found himself saddled in “Shoot Out” (1971) after Peck got out of prison and aims to payback the dastard who double-crossed him. Although Hanks doesn’t play an invincible, larger-than-life man of action like either Wayne or Peck, his Jefferson Kyle Kidd fought in the American Civil War, and he is inclined to kill anybody who threatens their lives.

If you’ve seen enough classic westerns, the revelations in “News of the World” won’t surprise you. Twice during their odyssey Kidd and Johanna tangle with obnoxious ruffians ready to kill them, while the remainder are made up of bland, non-violent moments. Alongside these two attempts on their lives, our protagonists survive a rollercoaster ride down a winding trail in a runaway wagon.

The careening wagon out of control is about as exciting as this 118-minute movie gets when our hero and heroine aren’t being used for target practice. Meantime, “News of the World” relies heavily on the surefire romance formula of opposites who attract. Eventually, as they shed their mutual suspicion, the two grow accustomed to each other. Initially, Johanna keeps Kidd at arms’ length.

By fadeout, however, she has thawed out and responds with warmth to her benefactor. Greengrass and company generate considerable tension with the depiction of ornery Texans who abhor the Union. Texas smoldered with anarchy during the post-war Era of Reconstruction.

Indeed, an occupation Army of heavily-armed Union soldiers—derided as “blue bellies” by the locals–prowled the towns and halted  the natives to scrutinize their loyalty oaths. Meantime, like some of John Wayne’s later westerns in the 1960s, “News of the World” boasts one suspenseful gunfight that solidifies with surprising results the friendship between Kidd and Johana.

Three low-down, no-account, ex-Confederate soldiers insist on buying Johanna, and these varmints refuse “no” for an answer. Instead of standing up to them, Kidd flees from them, lashing his horse relentlessly into a gallop.

Careening his rickety wagon frantically through rough country, our hero doesn’t outrun these hellions for long, and a cat & mouse shootout ensues. Altogether, the memorable scenes in “News of the World” never outnumber the mediocre ones. Altogether, Paulette Jiles’ evocative prose in her novel lingers long after the film’s stunning drone visuals fade away.

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