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Sundance 2022 ‘892’ Review: A Heartfelt, Charged Retelling

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
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Noble intentions abound in this taut, heartfelt retelling of a bombastic event drenched in troubling implications for our society’s current state of affairs. It’s a real-life story both well-suited to cinematic adaptation and bristling with relevance on various fronts — in just 100 minutes, 892 diligently peers into how the United States government and its sprawling powers-that-be treat veterans, the mentally unwell, and African-American men who try and stand up for themselves in full public view. Needless to say, the conclusion on all three subjects is dire.

The screenwriting team of Abi Damaris Corbin (who also directs) and Kwame Kwei-Armah (working on his first feature film, a departure from his acclaimed theatrical career as a theatremaker and artistic director of the Young Vic in London) have delicately and sensitively brought the fateful story of Brian Brown-Easley to life, and populated their film with an impressive roster of talented performers to help that story soar (and helped earn the film the Special Jury Award for an ensemble cast this year). John Boyega, quickly and efficiently re-proving his hefty talents as an actor who can do more than just yell other characters’ names and run away from explosions, is adept and riveting in the lead role. Playing Brown-Easley is no easy assignment; the real-life man was a former Marine Corps veteran whose appalling treatment by and lack of care from the Department of Veterans Affairs led him to experience dramatic struggles with his mental health. Ultimately, in 2017, after the VA declined to send him his monthly payment for living expenses (due, the film clarifies, to a pat clerical error), a disturbed Brown-Easley took matters into his own hands and robbed a Wells Fargo Bank with a bomb threat – with the sole demand of being paid his monthly stipend.

There could have been ways to depict this character as more deranged than anything else — both in his intentions and the means with which he chose to achieve them. But the team of 892 palpably reject such an approach, and go to significant lengths to hammer home what a privately tender and beloved fellow he was. He shares loving phone calls with his daughter Kiah (London Covington) before and during the robbery, as well as his ex-wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington); he is relatively polite and endearing with the bank tellers he holds hostage during the day-long events, played commendably by Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva; he even connects rather meaningfully and effortlessly with a local news producer he manages to contact (Connie Britton) as well as the gruff but compassionate negotiator who tries to talk him down (played, in his final onscreen role, by the sorely missed Michael Kenneth Williams). All around, 892 wants to engender a deeply understanding atmosphere, with Corbin gamely attempting to match the sentiment of the article that first got her interested in adapting this story: Aaron Gell’s piece entitled “They didn’t have to kill him.”

Cinematically, however, the film struggles to keep a balance between dourness and anything else. This is a film among many of its kind that addresses a miserably sad real-life event with an unmistakably humane, earnest tone, but can’t quite elevate itself beyond a feeling of documentarian relaying. Events happen just like they probably happened in real life; awful, bitter truths about awful, bitter bureaucratic failures are exposed and highlighted; talented actors display their talents and fulfill various familiar roles within the story (the concerned wife, the adorable child, the mean policemen, the one nice policeman, the frightened hostage, the resourceful hostage, et cetera). Yet there is very little life to be found at any point in here. Rather, a steady progression of events playing out like a deliberate but dreary assignment, which culminate in a puzzling leap of narrative that seems almost enamored with the glowering sense of doom hanging over the entire event.

As Gell’s article reveals in its title, this showdown was Brown-Easley’s last day on Earth, but 892 concocts a disappointingly thin examination of how we could and should understand that fact. The film has every right to do this, naturally, but as far as the experience of watching it is concerned, 892 places such an intense weight on humanizing the man that it feels lopsided given the real-life severity of the actions. Perhaps fruitless but possibly revealing comparisons to the likes of Dog Day Afternoon or Inside Man help to elucidate not only what Corbin and Kwei-Armah were drawing from but also how Brown-Easley himself may have seen his quest, and yet 892 rarely digs beneath the surface of how this event ripples within contexts beyond the readily apparent.

There is a wealth of difficult conversations to be had regarding what happens in these macabre events, and the film seems to satisfy itself with this realm of thinking, yet the experience misses out on any significant explanation of the why. One intriguing undercurrent of Brown-Easley’s approach to the situation he creates is an assuredness that the police will kill him given any opportunity — that he is proven bluntly correct may have been envisioned as a dramatic moment, but instead is handled with a lifeless, uncurious tone that is far less meaningful than the film seems to imagine. 892 may boast a talented lineup of contributors and pertinent themes, but the experience sadly stalls out.

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