Movie Reviews: “The Post” and “The Commuter”

As moviegoers being to make their way through the month of January, there are two kinds of films at their disposal. In one corner are the last remaining Oscar hopefuls, many of which have been playing in a few select cities over the holidays to be eligible for award consideration; however, are not getting a nationwide roll-out until now. At the other end of the aisle are the less serious pictures, attempting to be nothing more than a quick dose of mid-winter entertainment.

This weekend, those in Charlotte have two distinctly different options from each corner; Steven Spielberg’s pentagon papers drama, “The Post”, and the latest Liam Neeson thriller, “The Commuter”.

Spielberg’s film is clearly the one hoping to be something more than just a slice of entertainment. The awards campaign around this film has been touting it up as the movie of the moment, drawing comparisons between the Nixon administration’s war on the press and the current administration’s strategy of naming anything remotely negative as “fake news”. “The Post” is certainly a movie that occasionally comes across as sentimental and on-the-nose about its message on the importance of free press. Yet, all that comes as little shock considering Spielberg’s involvement. The man has never passed up the chance to indulge in a little old-fashioned Hollywood swelling of emotions.

Despite being one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of movies, Spielberg curiously has become underrated in recent years. Perhaps it’s because of the wealth of iconic classics he’s administered under his direction or that the bar for greatness in his pictures is simply so high. Spielberg does seem to be more at home these days, or at least more passionate, with moralistic dives into American history (“Lincoln”, “Bridge of Spies”), as opposed to big blockbusters like he used to do. However, everything he’s done of late still exemplifies a mastery of skill in nearly every scene.

Wherever your politics lie on what Spielberg is trying to say with his latest picture, there’s little doubt of the skill level that’s on display. The enjoyment of “The Post” largely comes from the thrill of watching one of the greats simply work their magic. The same could also be said for Maryl Streep, who stars as The Washington Post’s publisher, Kay Gaham, the first female newspaper publisher in the country. Like Spielberg, Streep’s excellence has become an afterthought over the years and here she makes all the work here seem effortless and carefree.

The central drama of the film largely falls on Graham’s shoulders. She’s a woman struggling to hold her own in a male-dominated industry, one where her opinion is not always valued. Spielberg makes sure to highlight just how risky the choice to publish the papers was for someone in Graham’s position. Highlighting years of lies and deceit by numerous presidents about the Vietnam War, the blow-back from deciding to expose the documents could have destroyed the paper and potentially set her to prison.

The movie also offers plenty of snappy newsroom scenes with Post editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), pushing his reporters to get a hold of the documents as quickly as possible. It’s the section of the movie where Spielberg really brings his style and skill at blocking out to the forfront; actors and cameras almost dancing with each other as they glide across the office. However, unlike Streep’s performance, Hanks’ is a bit more complicated to talk about. He has the disadvantage of tackling a role already made famous by another actor, Jason Robards, in “All the President’s Men”. Hanks remains always entertaining but feels a tad bit miscast here. The role of Bradlee requires someone a bit more rugged, something that doesn’t quite fit Hanks’ clean-cut personality. Oddly enough, the movie’s most exciting performances come from the supporting players, many of whom are pulled from some  the biggest television series of the last several years.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies “The Commuter”; this year’s mid-winter Liam Neeson action flick. At their best, something like “The Grey”, these movies are a fun jolt of brute energy and intensity, while at their worst, think “Taken 3”, they’re mind-numbing montages of chaotic violence. “The Commuter” lies somewhere in the middle. It’s director, Jaume Collet-Serra, has worked with Neeson three times before (“Unknown”, “Non-Stop”, “Run All Night”) and manages to play just enough suspense to keep you slightly interested, at least until the movie begins to explain itself in rather silly ways. This time around, Neeson plays an insurance salesman; one who takes the daily commuter train to and from work every-day. That is until he is unexpectedly laid off from his job, leaving his family’s financial future (they lost nearly everything in the ’08 economy collapse) on potentially unstable ground.

His fortune seems to take an unexpected turn when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) approaches him on the train ride home. She offers up a task; one which could reward Neeson’s character $100,000 in cash, a tempting offer considering a second mortgage payment and school tuition bills for his son are just around the corner.  The task at hand involves identifying an unknown passenger on the train; however, things soon take a sinister turn as Neeson learns he’s become over-his-head with potentially dangerous people.

The movie starts out as a half-decent Hitchcock knock-off, think something like “Strangers On a Train”, only to go off-the-rails (pun intended) when  transforms into rather ridiculous action-picture. “The Commuter” is far more interesting as a thriller about an every-man’s moment of temptation, spiraling him into a web of unethical actions, than one of a hero with special skills fighting villains on a train.

“The Post”:  ★ ★ 1/2
“The Commuter:   ★ 1/2