Last weekend I had a choice to make: either Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) or News of the World (2020). I did the superhero movie first because I figured it would garner more attention. Given the number of people I saw in the theater, I suspect I was right. Still, even though it was not quite the opening weekend, News of the World had a healthy crowd (no pun intended) this past Saturday, particularly when compared to the months between theaters reopening and today. Having said that, I dread the offerings between now and, I suppose, the summer when (hopefully) the COVID fears will have calmed. The expectation is that the blockbuster films that had been planned for the year just passed are released in cinemas across the nation. I would not be surprised if that did not happen, and part of that feeling speaks to how there was nothing really new released between the previous weekend and this one. Anyway, here’s to hoping that there will be more movies in the theaters in the coming months.
Though I was initially skeptical, a little research revealed that the job performed by News of the World‘s main character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), actually existed. There is a novel on which the film is based, and author Paulette Jiles apparently did her homework. If you have not seen any previews for tis movie, Kidd travels around post-Civil War Texas reading from a collection of newspapers in order to update locals in far-flung towns as to the latest events. We pick up Kidd in the middle of arriving at one of these towns in order to perform his civic duty. Once completed, he moves on to the next town. In transit, he comes across a wrecked wagon and an apparent lynching, but nearby is a small child dressed in Native American deerskins. According to papers found nearby, the little girl is named Johanna Leonberger, but when she was much younger she had been kidnapped by the Kiowa and adopted by them. The Kiowa had recently been forced to move after a raid, and she had been left behind. Kidd takes her into his care, transporting her to the nearest army outpost and intending to leave her with them. The army is there, by the way, as part of the ongoing Reconstruction effort following the conclusion of the Civil War. Their resources are stretched thin, and they leave it up to Kidd to look after Johanna. The plan is to take her some 400 miles away to a German settlement in the hopes of reuniting her with her countrymen, a journey fraught with the dangers of a seemingly lawless 1870 Texas. Along the way, the non-English speaking Johanna and the non-Kiowa speaking Kidd (though he knows a couple words in German) form a bond. It is not made clear why he would be so committed to protecting her, though there is something about a wife he left behind to fight in the war and regrets over not returning to her right away. At any rate, he fights off a band of ruffians intent on taking Johanna, again for unstated reasons, though for no apparent good; keeps her from harm in the middle of some kind of industrial process for killing buffalo led by some unscrupulous men; and walks through a dust storm to find her when they briefly get separated. All this struggle results in getting Johanna eventually to her aunt and uncle. Given the lengths her went to in protecting her, she is sad to see him go. He leaves to travel to see his wife in San Antonio, but discovers that she is no longer living. Instead, he returns to Johanna, and together they go back to reading the news across Texas.
The history in News of the World is quite good, so I will just leave that commentary at giving it a historical stamp of approval. If you end up seeing it, know that it is solid in most every respect when it comes to relating the past. The problem is that the film is not all that exciting. This might not be a big deal for some, but it reminded me a great deal of The Lord of the Rings films. Substitute the ring for Johanna, and you have a roughly similar plot, though minus the mythical creatures and far lower stakes. Returning a girl to her family is not as grand a scale as defeating ultimate evil. What makes News of the World more interesting is the personal relationship that develops between Kidd and Johanna. As the personification of innocence, she needs protecting. Some of the loveliest aspects of the Bible pertain to children and their virtue. Jesus tells His disciples, and us, that the Kingdom of God will not be denied to the young, and that in order to enter you must be like them. Catholic teaching since then has supported these concepts, which makes the recent abuse scandals all the more tragic. All the same, even if it is not immediately evident why Kidd is so keen to protect Johanna, I applaud his dedication.
In sum, News of the World is an interesting, if meandering, slightly muddled, and a slowly meandering film. One moment that underscores its snail pace comes towards the end when Kidd has one of the longer pregnant pauses I have seen in any movie ever. We have seen him travel hundreds of miles, fight off enemies, environments, and exposure, to find out the fate of his wife. The news leaves him stunned, and the director decided to film all of it. It drives home the emotions Kidd felt, but I got it after about five seconds. Yet it goes on and on. Regardless, this is not necessarily meant to be a criticism. It is a fine film to watch, though only once.