Tom Hanks is never going out of style, and that’s today’s news of the world!
This is to say Hanks will never be rendered irrelevant in the eyes of Hollywood. He’s achieved legendary status where you’ll still find him in a sophisticated period piece every now and then.
And the Academy freaking loves him! 😃
News of the World
Hanks’ most recent offering, News of the World, has him playing a 19th-century news anchor. Since television wasn’t available in those days, Captain Jefferson Kidd had to travel from one town to the next, preaching the gospel of headlines.
In the mining, farming, and manufacturing towns during the Reconstruction-era South, staying informed on the goings-on of the world wasn’t feasible. Their only avenue was attending a reading event hosted by a newsreader like Mr. Jefferson Kidd.
After reading the headlines to a crowd one night, Kidd ventures out and finds a lost girl, by happenstance. The girl, Johanna, is an orphan and doesn’t speak a lick of English.
Raised by the Kiowa tribe, Johanna comes across as “feral” to civilized settlers. Despite his attempts to hand her over to the federal authorities and a foster home, Kidd is coerced into acting as Johanna’s surrogate caregiver. Men back then actually had a greater sense of responsibility.
I know. Amazing, right?
Role of Storytellers
As the movie makes abundantly clear from beginning to end, Johanna is a free spirit and cannot be contained by civilization. She belongs to the World, but not the Home. Johanna exemplifies an ethos inherent in one of the world’s most timeless and crucial traditions: Storytelling.
In the beginning, Captain Kidd is shown dryly reciting the day’s headlines, like a prehistoric anchorman. He struggles mightily with the task, peering at the words through a magnifying glass in the scant light.
But here’s the thing, the townfolks each pay a dime just to hear Kidd speak. Yeah, a price of admission just to hear someone talk. It’s not like we have that in the modern world, right?
But these townsfolks are toiling. They keep the local economy afloat with their blood, sweat, and tears. The post-Confederate South wasn’t exactly abundant in riches, either.
So, why were they spending their hard-earned money just to hear a stranger drone on and on about the news?
Because life is jaded. It’s boring to the point where the sand and tumbleweeds blowing past you will drive you insane. Townsfolks need stimulation. They need a story. Even if it’s the humdrum news, it still counts as a story!
Give them something else to think about and save them from the minutiae of life!
Stories in the News
But Captain Kidd doesn’t see them as stories. He genuinely looks at it as a profession. It’s a job to keep the thin stream of money flowing in. He’s a salesman of dry information and nothing else.
But Johanna happens upon his newspapers one day and sees words she doesn’t know sewed into sentences she doesn’t understand.
“Stories”, she says.
“That’s right,” the Captain says. “They’re stories.”
And there you have it! In Movieland, a character’s perspective can shift with one-word exchanges as opposed to years and years of redundant experience in Realityland! Pretty cool, huh?
Power of Storytellers
Anyway, the Captain had been reading mundane info off of pressed newspapers for years without realizing the power he actually held in his hands. The power to instigate and resolve conflicts, for one thing.
Power to Create and Resolve Conflict
Upon leaving Johanna with the foster family, Kidd travelled to a Texas town where he informed them of actions taken by President Grant against the South. Needless to say, the former Confederates weren’t exactly big supporters of Grant, let alone the entire Union army. The “Blues” were occupiers, in their eyes. Even during Reconstruction, tensions between the North and South were still at a boiling point.
Kidd inadvertently riles the Southern crowd up by mentioning Grant’s name, reminding them of their hardships. The occupying “blues”, carrying arms with a dictatorial disposition, warn the Southerners to keep themselves under control. On their own land!
And the day was already over! The Southies were looking for space to relax and put the worries of the past behind them!
When Kidd realizes what his words and power were causing, he quickly moved in and instilled calm before a conflict broke out. Kidd, a former Confederate, assures his congregation that he understands their plight as he’s going through it himself.
Storytelling gives you the power of conflict and resolution. It gives you a status not even afforded to dictators. Yes, storytelling can thwart tyranny, even.
Power to Defeat Tyranny
On their journey to Castroville, to take Johanna to her remaining family, Kidd and Johanna stop at Erath county. Erath is a village of outsiders who seek to weed out outsiders.
Basically, white folks occupying and expelling Natives from their new land. Not only do the Erath residents expropriate the Natives’ territory, but they expropriate their livestock as well (buffalo). The county’s residents are led by the sinister drunkard Mr. Farley, who’s all-too-happy to shoot loud-mouthed dissidents.
Farley likes keeping things under control in his little town. Or I should say, he likes keeping people under his control. He maintained a cult of personality (at least the 1800s version of it) by making himself appear as the expeller of evildoers in his little town.
Trust in good ole Mr. Farley! For he will fight the Injuns for us! He will bring prosperity in our little town!
So how did Farley accomplish this? Why he printed a newspaper with images and stories that put him on a pedestal! And who better to read these stories than a professional orator like Mr. Jefferson Kidd?
One night, in the middle of merry drinking and celebration, Farley saw it as the perfect opportunity to solidify his grasp over the populace. So Farley ordered the Captain to read a copy of the Erath Journal, his very own propaganda piece. But the Captain had other ideas. He was not going to use his storytelling power to strengthen a despot, no. He was going to use it to overthrow him.
Instead of brainwashing the townsfolks with stories of Farley’s heroism, Kidd spun an inspirational tale of Pennsylvanian miners who survived an accident and fought their careless superior. Farley could not have any outside news or stories impinging upon his status as Dear Leader, no. So he ordered Kidd to be dealt with.
Unfortunately for Mr. Farley, the townsfolks swearing their allegiance to him were in open rebellion.
Stories gave men like Mr. Farley their iron fist. It was also stories that gave men like him the boot.
Power to Inspire
An Erath resident, John Calley, had a brother who was killed by Mr. Farley (the loud-mouthed dissident). After the erasure of Farley’s rule, Calley followed Kidd and Johanna for a few days until going his own way.
“That story about the miners,” Calley started. “Was it true?”
Kidd pulled out the paper detailing the situation, “It was.” He handed Calley the paper before sending him on his way, to find his own destiny.
Events can qualify as stories. Stories hold the power to topple dictatorships. They can also instill inspiration for the downtrodden and seek freedom.
Is there something else I’m missing? How did the story end that brought Kidd’s character arc to a satisfying conclusion? First, we need to examine the death of storytelling to appreciate the vitality of it.
Death of Storytelling
Upon their arrival to Castroville, Kidd had to make the difficult decision to drop off Johanna. Her uncle Wilhelm, a native German and traditionalist down to the bone, shot down any suggestion of giving Johanna stories and books. Wilhelm’s farm was a microcosm of the real world and Johanna would have to grow up sometime. Right?
“We don’t have stories here,” Wilhelm said, “She must work and learn the proper ways.”
At that point, it was the first, and so far, the only time I wasn’t sure how a movie character would progress. Was Kidd going to leave Johanna to conform to reality? Or would he take her and continue feeding her storytelling fascination? Either choice could’ve yielded terrible consequences and ultimate betterment.
Initially, Kidd decided that Johanna was best off away from him. Maybe it’s best to nip her childlike detatchment in the bud and be done with it. Maybe.
And so he ventured forward to San Antonio. After avoiding the town for 5 years to escape the pain, Kidd found his wife’s grave in a churchyard. With a shaking hand displaying his wedding band, Kidd felt compelled to leave his ring by his wife’s grave after 5 long years.
He felt compelled to leave the past, as he had already instructed Johanna to do when she found her old battered home. The home with pale blood upon the walls.
Saving a Child’s Spirit
Recalling their wishes to start and raise a family, and imagining the pain his wife had to suffer in silence with cholera, Kidd realizes the enormity of his mistake. No person should have to be confined with their loved ones so far away. No person should compress their individuality in the face of conventional standards.
Hopping on the back of his horse, Kidd made way for Castroville once again.
There, he found Johanna in the same clothes he left her with. And a rope tied around her ankle to prevent her escape.
“She no work,” her Uncle Wilhelm demurred.
“She kept escaping,” her Aunt Anna said.
Johanna was a child with a natural instinct for the magical, majestic side of the World. Maybe in a few years’ time, Johanna would relent and abide by the traditional role society had for her.
But why waste such a good thing?
Kidd knew that the love for storytelling and all of its inherent power comes from our innate childlike glee and gaiety. By bringing a kid along with him, it was time for Captain Kidd to stay true to his namesake!
(Okay, that sounded a lot better in my head)
The Power to Entertain
You see, folks, storytelling has another power that oughta be celebrated. The power to entertain.
“After being buried by his loving wife and being dug back up the wedding congregation,” Captain Kidd accounced in the film’s final scene, “He approached the bridegroom and said ‘When your wife says til death do us part, don’t believe a word of it!”
Kidd, joined by Johanna to add the story’s sound effects, started as a dry, disinterested reader of news to a mediator of conflict. As he gained power, he destroyed a dictatorship and finally settled as a bonafide storyteller entertaining the masses!
Taking people away from reality, for even just a minute, is a skill that should not be taken for granted. If there’s a story in your heart, it behooves oneself to tell it, no matter the circumstance.
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