Tribeca 2017: Newton
Newton explores the strained nature of democracy, political influence, and at the forefront the sanctity of voting against the varied cultural climate that can exist within a nation teeming with diplomatic unrest. Writer and director Amit Masurkur steeps his narrative in intriguing material and in trying to tether these loose hanging wires to a comedic accelerant Newton fails to ignite anything funny meanwhile the opportunity for topical drama slips away.
If satire has taught us anything it’s that the bigger the subject, the more room there is for hitting a vein of comedy that works (The Great Dictator, Dr. Strangelove) but Newton can’t seem to find any opportunity for functional humor, and the moments of levity are so inconsistent it’s hard to tell what tone the film is reaching for. Newton is laden with engaging content; at the center of the narrative is an idealist. Newton Kumar is tasked with running a polling place in the outskirts of India where hostile Maoist Guerillas have been active in a long-running history of violence. Instead of the upcoming elections, there’s been an increase in militant aggression, requiring Newton and his team of election officials receive military escort in setting up their polling station. Corruption and coercion are coming from all sides, and our driven protagonist is contending with constituents who’re reluctant to stick their necks out in this hotbed of tension. However, Mr. Kumar will risk anything to see that people exercise their right to vote. There’s a certifiable level of passion felt in the film, the lead characters commitment to the election, the immediacy of democracy in India, the threat of insurgent opposition, working into the overall political import of the film looms large, but it’s not shaped into anything substantially comedic or poignant.
With the thematic landscape of Newton, there’s potential to explore the duality of it’s rich subject matter, but it’s content to subscribe to lightly realized sidesteps of droll humor, and occasional conflicts that have the instructional convenience. There’s a sense of rhythm in the storytelling, and there’s a sustained tone to the unimposing (reminiscent of Hawks’ laidback interludes in his later work) getting familiar with Newton’s team of amiable team of misfits who are thinly drawn but still light years more interesting than the straight-laced Newton.
As a character, Newton’s a sounding board for the sanctity of democracy; an agreeable and solid sentiment, but as a character, he’s so stiff and unappealing. My worst suspicions were confirmed when he repeatedly corrects people on the annunciation of his name, which was changed from the Hindi spelling of his name “Nutan” to “Newton.” This literal/metaphorical wordplay simply makes “NEWTON” come off as a jerk, and for much of the film, he stays that way.
There are good intentions at work throughout the duration of the film, but they seem to get lost along the way, and it doesn’t to get a grasp on what kind of movie it wants to be. I think Newton has it’s heart in the right place, but it meanders into the jungle, and its message of voting and democracy fails to connect, perhaps the one-dimensional titular protagonist off-putting. The drive and idealism of the character seem defiant, and who doesn’t love a rebel with a cause? But Newton’s mere presence lacks conviction, and his actions indicate he’s nothing more than a fussy bureaucrat; I looked for something beyond and beneath the contextual import of this guy and came up with less. Newton is a technically sound, decent looking movie that has some momentum but for the most part, is asleep at the wheel.