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- Reviewed from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Fate looms over 892 in one of its depressing modern forms: bureaucracy so inefficient and inflexible that it flushes away those who depend upon it without really noticing. Several other flavours of dire inevitability are involved in the story too, such as the inability of societies structured around wars to know what to do with soldiers who come back from battle, especially when those soldiers are from ethnic groups which don’t get a fair shake anyway.
What happened to Brian Brown-Easley in 2017 – when he took two hostages in an Atlanta bank claiming to have a bomb in his backpack – should not have been inevitable, but it certainly ran along some bleakly predictable rails towards a fatal conclusion. If this dramatisation, directed by Abi Damaris Corbin and written by Kwame Kwei-Armah, has some templates of its own to follow in the hostage-drama genre, they don’t stop it being diligently sincere about the failures of the system that was supposed to be helping its protagonist, and about his own far smaller failures in turn.
Brian, a Marine returned from Iraq, is chasing the $892 that he believed the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) owed him and without which he was about to be homeless. Once this attempt turns disastrous, John Boyega plays Brian like a man scrabbling to get a grip on a riverbank; but before that, when tragedy is only a theoretical outcome, the actor is majestically still, the centre around which everyone else seems to be rotating.
Politeness and paranoia spill out of the hostage-taker equally, as when Brian peers in close-up over a desk looking for snipers who haven’t arrived yet, while assuring his young daughter on the phone that he’ll see her tomorrow. Later, he stops sugar-coating things, saying that she “needs to know how this world treats people like us.” The film touches on racial tensions throughout, but it seems that “us” means returning conflict veterans of all races. In a flashback to one of Brian’s fruitless arguments with the VA, the camera pulls back and pans down the line of other claimants in similar straits, multicultural supplicants with eyes downcast to the floor.
There is another Marine Corps veteran, but this one is on the outside looking in. The late Michael K Williams plays police negotiator Eli Bernard, and once he arrives the film spreads its bureaucratic dysfunctions more widely. For a long period, the negotiator is stymied by Brian being on the phone to a local TV news station, an obstacle no one in authority seems very motivated to fix, and various white policemen don’t exactly shower Bernard with respect. “It’s no secret the VA is FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition),” sympathises Bernard, well aware that his own public sector employer has a million knotted tensions of its own. Williams brings a different and steelier screen charisma than that of Boyega. The real-life negotiator in the incident, Andre Bates, is thanked in the film’s credits, so the film could be read as his sympathetic testimony concerning the fate of the man on the other end of the line.
Only one of them walked away. Brian is shot through the head by a SWAT sniper, in circumstances which were left unclear in the original Longreads article by journalist Aaron Gell on which the script is based, and aren’t fully clarified by the film adaptation either.
In the interests of maintaining focus on two main characters and their places in a system which barely functions, the film avoids dealing very directly with two other key players as individuals or concern itself with any alignment of malice between them: the unnamed sniper and the newly installed Chief of Police, both white and both barely glimpsed as individuals. This is a chewy decision on the film’s part, tiptoeing around any wish to treat a white sniper’s shooting of an unarmed Black man as racially motivated while simultaneously making it seem a totally inevitable occurrence. It doesn’t tackle the fact that the sniper was later cleared of wrongful killing either. After looking systemic dysfunction squarely in the eye in the run up to the killing, the film accepts that bigoted conspiracy might not be the only thing capable of grinding well-meaning citizens to dust; bureaucratic collapse will do the job as well.