Don’t-tread-on-me Texans, Native Americans, new European immigrants, Mexicans, Blacks freed from slavery — but still subject to lynching, as the film’s opening makes clear — mix uncomfortably with Northern Blues, the Union soldiers struggling to maintain an uneasy peace.
It’s a wild, wild West, but not precisely the kind you may be used to from a diet of cinematic Cowboys-and-Indians.
That’s the stage on which a decidedly smaller, but ultimately extraordinarily moving drama unfolds: Kidd, in his wanderings to bring stories that expand the narrow horizons of his listeners, comes across a child (Helena Zengel) whose parents, German settlers, had been killed years ago by Kiowa raiders, who have raised her. En route to relatives after being freed, the almost feral orphan once again finds herself alone after her military escort is killed. When no one else is available to take her to an aunt and uncle all the way on the other side of the state — through Kiowa country and a small town run by a tinpot potentate — Kidd reluctantly agrees to do so.
Based on Paulette Jiles’s 2016 novel, “News” is, in its broadest contours, a story akin to “True Grit,” although the girl, named Johanna, doesn’t really want to accompany her older protector at all. Despite hair so blond it’s almost white, she’s Kiowa, as far as Johanna can remember, and orphaned twice over. (She tells Kidd her name is “Cicada,” in a rudimentary communication, which involves pantomime, Kiowa and primitive English. The relationship is just as prickly and stumbling, on both sides. )
That changes when Kidd and Johanna have a run-in with a disreputable sort (Michael Angelo Covino) who means to “buy” Johanna, presumably for child prostitution. She’s smart enough to know a bad guy when she sees one, and to come to accept Kidd, who will have none of it, as the hero he is. In that sense, “News” is like almost every other western. Still, it works.
As an increasingly tender bond develops between Kidd and Johanna, it becomes clear that each of them is as broken as the other. Kidd’s painful backstory of loss and healing, which only comes out over time, is, like Johanna’s, a metaphor for a nation in need of mending.
One of the most rewarding subtexts of the film is the theme of journalism — as a balm to dress the wounded provincialism of post-Civil War America. Kidd doesn’t report — or even write — the news, but he recognizes that, in telling stories, there are truths that can restore our humanity.
That’s the beating heart of Jiles’s story. It’s one that director Paul Greengrass, assisted by his leading man from “Captain Phillips” and his co-writer Luke Davies, have deftly transplanted to the screen, no matter how large or small the one you end up watching on may be.
PG-13. At area theaters on Dec. 25. Contains violence, disturbing images, mature thematic material and some strong language. 118 minutes.