Full-court press: Spielberg vs. The White House
By: Matt Brunson
In these turbulent and trying times, a timid and largely ineffectual media is par for the course, feigning acts of hard-hitting journalism when maintaining some measure of the status quo is what’s really taking place. (Latest of many cases in point: Even with that offensive “shithole” comment added to countless other affronts, the major mainstream outlets still refuse to directly call that Cretin-in-Chief Trump a racist, couching his vileness in less threatening terms like “racially tinged” and “controversial.”) Three cheers, then, for Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which not only recalls a more honest, more efficient and more courageous period for the American newspaper but also serves as a throwing down of the gauntlet for the modern counterpart.
The Post may not match the brilliance of 1976’s All the President’s Men, but it still serves as a potent reminder of the potential power of the press. As with that look at the Watergate scandal and the toppling of a U.S. president, this one also involves the Washington Post and editor Ben Bradlee. Jason Robards won an Oscar for portraying Bradlee in All the President’s Men; Tom Hanks probably won’t enjoy comparable awards glory, but he’s nevertheless excellent in the role, seen ordering his troops to find out what bombshell the New York Times planned to explode on its cover in June 1971. It turns out to be some of the pages of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by analyst and activist Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) to alert the nation to the lies spun by several administrations regarding the Vietnam War. Once the Nixon White House manages to obtain a temporary court injunction against the Times, preventing it from publishing any more pages, Bradlee sees this as the Post’s opportunity to pick up the baton. But to do so, he needs the approval and authorization of Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), already in the spotlight as the sole female boss of a major American newspaper.
Armed with a stellar screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, Spielberg responds by serving up his best picture in 15 years. Clearly energized by the urgency and import of the piece, the director has fashioned an engrossing film that functions as both a historical record (with the usual allowances for Hollywood embellishments, of course) and a cautionary tale. He’s backed in his zeal by a note-perfect cast — Streep and Hanks, of course, but also a supporting line-up that runs especially deep. Particularly of note are Tracy Letts (also terrific in Lady Bird) as Fritz Beebe, Graham’s sensible friend and advisor, Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who became Ellsberg’s Post liaison, and Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense who’s seen as both combative and morally compromised.
In an awards season in which most of the players are either cutting-edge endeavors or indie darlings, The Post seems comparatively old-fashioned in its content and its execution. That’s hardly a criticism, though. Blessed with veterans on both sides of the camera, here’s a classically trained piece that manages to be both robust and rousing.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles might be the name of a beloved John Hughes flick from the 1980s, but it’s also Liam Neeson’s preferred modes of transportation en route to dispatching various baddies with bone-crunching determination. Under the watchful eye of director Jaume Collet-Serra, Neeson has taken to cars in Unknown, an airplane in Non-Stop, and now a locomotive in The Commuter. (In their joint offering Run All Night, the actor was content just to hoof it.)
In The Commuter, Neeson plays Michael MacCauley, a former cop who has spent the past decade working as an insurance salesman. Unexpectedly losing his job, Michael’s in a vulnerable state, which largely explains why, on his train ride home, he accepts a mysterious offer from a complete stranger (Vera Farmiga): Locate a certain person on the train and earn an easy $100,000. Michael takes the bait, but once he realizes that the individual he’s expected to expose is being targeted for assassination, he spends the rest of the commute trying to figure out how to thwart the killers.
The January-February stretch of any new year is often a dumping ground for the studios’ tax write-offs, but that’s clearly not the case when it comes to Liam Neeson action vehicles — here, it’s a matter of strategic scheduling, as most have tended to do quite well at the box office against limp competition. The Commuter similarly gets the job done, with Neeson’s committed performance providing a strong center to an increasingly outlandish storyline. The identity of the “surprise” villain was obvious before the script was even written (and the way he trips himself up is daft beyond compare), and late innings find Neeson’s Everyman engaged in death-defying activities that would give even Superman pause. But for those looking for a reasonably satisfying mix of mystery and muscle, The Commuter should be just the ticket.