“News of the World” becomes a kind of road movie for Kidd and Johanna, with new encounters across the unstable landscape. (After the Civil War ended, Texas wasn’t exactly the safest place in the country.) Greengrass structures it in an episodic fashion that harms the midsection, where the film sags a bit in jumping from meeting to meeting. The set-up is so well done that watching the movie settling into a road trip can be a bit of a letdown, although Greengrass does bring out some of his action-movie directing skills when they are needed, such as during a tense shootout with some of the bastards trying to buy Johanna. However, there is a better version of “News of the World” which has slightly higher stakes. As difficult as the journey is, neither Kidd nor Johanna have a bruise or scar to show, even after jumping off a horse and a runaway cart.
Greengrass is also smart enough to imbue his 1870 Western with some 2020 ideas. Kidd finds his way to County Erath, where the atmosphere is one of seclusion and, sorry, fake news. The area’s most prominent figure, Mr. Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy) insists that Kidd read his propaganda journal on the expulsion of everyone from the area except whites, and the links to disinformation in the modern age are not difficult to establish. And the idea of a man trying to bring together a fractured nation through knowledge and decency also has some relevance in 2020.
Not all of these themes are fully fleshed out, but “News of the World” sticks together and remains entertaining thanks to its top notch art. It might sound like Greengrass’ most traditional film, but there’s an energy in the direction here that isn’t always apparent in a western. It helps that this is arguably the director’s most aesthetically striking film, with some gorgeous views captured by Darius Wolski and one of James Newton Howard’s best scores of the year. And it’s so awesome to see so many wonderful faces filling the cast like Ray McKinnon, Elizabeth Marvel, and Bill Camp. On paper, this simple, well-told tale may not seem like much, but, at the end of a year when comfort was hard to find, this movie feels like a gift at times.
In theaters on Christmas day.