“News of the World” becomes a road movie of sorts for Kidd and Johanna, with new encounters across the unstable landscape. (After the end of the Civil War, Texas was not exactly the safest place in the country.) Greengrass structures it in an episodic way that kind of detracts from the midsection, where the film sags a bit as it jumps from encounter to encounter. The set-up is so well done that watching the movie settle into a road trip may be a bit disappointing, although Greengrass brings out some of his action movie direction skills when they’re needed, such as in a tense shoot-out with some scumbags who try to buy Johanna. However, there’s a better version of “News of the World” that has slightly higher stakes. As difficult as the journey is, neither Kidd nor Johanna have a bruise or scar to show, even after jumping from a runaway horse and cart.
Greengrass is also smart enough to imbue his 1870 Western with some 2020 ideas. Kidd finds his way to Erath County, where the atmosphere is one of isolation and, sorry, fake news. The most prominent figure in the area, Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) insists that Kidd read his propaganda newspaper about pushing out everyone from the area but the white people, and connections to disinformation in the modern age are not hard to make. And the idea of a man trying to bring a fractured nation back together through knowledge and decency has some relevance in 2020 too.
Not all of these themes are fully fleshed out, but “News of the World” stays together and stays entertaining because of its top-notch craft. It may feel like Greengrass’ most traditional film but there’s an energy to the direction here that’s not always apparent in a Western. It helps that it’s arguably the director’s most aesthetically striking film, with gorgeous vistas captured by Darius Wolski and one of the best scores of the year from James Newton Howard. And it’s so great to see so many wonderful faces filling out the cast like Ray McKinnon, Elizabeth Marvel, and Bill Camp. On paper, this simple tale well-told may not seem like it amounts to much, but, at the end of a year in which comfort was hard to find, this movie sometimes feels like a gift.
In theaters on Christmas Day.