SPOILER ALERT: In case you don’t know the true story of Brian Brown-Easley there are significant plot details revealed in this review. Read on at your own discretion.
Premiering on Friday in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival, the devastating true story of Brian Brown-Easley, a disgruntled Marine veteran who held up an Atlanta Wells Fargo Bank out of desperation to bring attention to his plight after not receiving his monthly disability check of $892, has been brought to the screen with the edge-of-your-seat intensity of a fictional thriller. But sadly this is no fiction, rather the awful truth so many forgotten military vets experience in this country.
Writer-director Abi Damaris Corbin (who co-wrote with Kwame Kwei-Armah) adapted Aaron Gell’s article “They Didn’t Have To Kill Him,” a title that tells you what happened to Brown-Easley before you have even read the first paragraph. This film version plays it out in more linear fashion, and while not on the same filmmaking level as Sidney Lumet’s 1975 Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino played another desperate man, you may still find yourself biting your nails out of frustration for what Brian went through and what drove him there.
892 is no biopic, and unlike Gells’ exhaustively researched 2018 article that tells this man’s life story leading up to that fateful July 2017 day, Corbin almost exclusively focuses on the action inside that bank and the attempt by law enforcement on the outside and in an emergency center to save the hostages and end the standoff. Of course there have been countless movies other than the crown jewel of them all, Dog Day, that focus on bank holdups, but the gut-wrenching and sad tale of Brian Brown-Easley is all the more compelling due to its unfortunate real-world connections.
Opening the film with the sounds of a city waking up for the day, we meet Brian (John Boyega) as seemingly a person also just going about his business, talking to his young daughter on the phone, and soon entering a bank and approaching a teller in order to ask for a withdrawal of $25 from his account. What starts as a routine transaction turns into sheer terror in the eyes of that teller, Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva), when Brian hands her a piece of paper saying he has a bomb.
From that point the bank employees go into a kind of frozen state as his demeanor turns wickedly intense, his threats increasingly more frightening and as he disables every security camera in sight. But this is not a fearsome criminal, rather it is the act of a desperate man who as we learn freaked out that the VA has somehow cheated him out of his $892 check and that he will be homeless and disappoint his daughter. Gell’s article details his efforts earlier in the week to plead his case to the VA who basically ignored him. In the film, however, it is already clear this is a man on the edge. He wants his story out there. “I want to talk to Don Lemon!” he shouts at an early point about being on CNN and other news channels.
As the staff of the bank tries to calm him down, including manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie), a huge response from the police and other law enforcement builds outside the bank’s doors, led by Eli Bernard (Michael Kenneth Williams), who is determined to run this operation his own way even when he collides with others. Police start raiding Brian’s personal apartment and make connection with his estranged wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington), who gets on the phone with him with their daughter Kiah (London Covington) nearby. As the whole scene escalates, TV stations a part of it, employees inside the bank start showing empathy towards him as the truth behind all this becomes clear. Jeffrey Donovan, Kate Burton and Connie Britton are among the supporting cast.
Corbin is firmly in control behind the camera and with particular expert help with her editor Chris Witt. The British actor Boyega is superb in every aspect of the role, as is the commanding presence of the late Williams in what sadly is his final film role. Among the bank staff, Beharie (who is in a couple of Sundance movies this year) is very fine, and I particularly liked the naturalism of Leyva as the teller who first encounters Brian. End title cards inform us Brian’s family still has not been able to collect the money from the VA. Sad, indeed.
Sam Levenson’s Little Lamb, along with Epic and Salmira, are the production companies. Producers are Ashley Levinson, Salman Al-Rashid, Sam Frohman, Kevin Turen and Mackenzie Fargo.
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