A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will. They travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an empty man. A Civil War veteran without a family, he wanders the Western Plains, reading stories from the many newspapers he has in tow, bringing them to audiences hungry for diversion. He ekes out a living on the meager donations he collects, just enough to get him to the next town. He has no true direction, every day much like the last. So, when his path crosses that of a young white girl who’s been kidnapped by natives, he’s unsure how to proceed. His confusion mounts when he’s charged with returning her to her family, a journey through violent, treacherous territory that will test them both while leading them to their true purpose.
There’s a timely, vital message in Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World,” an adaptation of the novel by Paulette Jiles. A western in appearance, it speaks to the power of not simply a well-told tale but the truth behind it. At its core, it examines the consequences of disinformation and the value of facts, even if they may be a tad unpopular. Ironically, for a film that deals with the power of a clear narrative, it comes off as a bit murky at times with incidents and characters not fully explained or fleshed out, preventing it from having a clear narrative through-line it so desperately needs to keep the viewer engaged. That the pacing movies in fits and starts, shows that key elements are missing,
As Kidd, Tom Hanks’ austere persona holds him in good stead. With stars of his stature, we have the convenience of shorthand, knowing with a glance what the character is all about thanks to the actor’s familiar bearing which we’ve become acquainted with over the years. Much like Chuck Noland from “Cast Away,” Kidd is adrift, Hanks employing his trademark far-away, sad-eyed gaze to convey the veteran’s loneliness. But there’s an anger here as well, which comes to the fore when bandits pursue him and his charge, young Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), a daughter of German immigrants, adrift between a culture she’s nearly forgotten and one she’s been torn away from. Having abandoned her native tongue, communication between the odd travelers is limited, yet they learn how to “speak” to one another when forced to deal with the outlaws and zealots that cross their path.
Curiously constructed, “News” keeps the viewer at arm’s distance throughout, never revealing enough about Kidd to make him a charismatic character, while the various troubles he and Johanna encounter begin and end with an abruptness that’s jarring. The biggest misstep occurs midway through when the pair encounter a large group of renegades who’ve raped the land, ridding it of all minority groups while slaughtering hundreds of buffalo for just their hides. The intent of their leader Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) is never really explained and Kidd and Johanna’s encounter with them begins and ends so suddenly, the whole episode comes off as a fever dream. Its disjointed nature mirrors the entire film, a ragged construct that never lets the viewer completely in.
Be that as it may, the movie ends on a high note and speaks to what “News” might have been. Kidd, with assistance from Johanna, delivers a stirring reading of a variety of stories from around the country to an appreciative crowd. They are transported by whimsical tales, shocked by violent stories and contemplative over social issues. And despite the listeners’ various backgrounds, they take in Kidd’s wares together, unified by his telling, though they may perceive them in different ways. It is a triumphant moment that speaks to all we have lost in this age of disinformation. Had “News” concentrated more on scenes such as this, it too would be a story worth remembering.
2 1/2 Stars