On the surface, 892 is “John Q with John Boyega.” But when has anything gathered from the skimmable, been the same as seeing the whole thing? In the film, to just rely on your eyes means certain things will go unregistered, like the “You out tomorrow, right?” from the motel manager to Brian Brown-Easley (Boyega), a Marine vet, father and our central perspective. Maybe the little shake in the breath while he’s smoking in front of the bank can slip by. Or the barrage of “I’m sorry” he would say to the bank teller, who is now panicking even more than when he told her that he has a bomb.

As one could surmise from the news, especially from initial reports, a man had entered an institution characterised as important to life, and held multiple hostages until an action he deemed right gets carried out. But the “where” is a bank, not a hospital. The “why” is to have money owed, not a new heart. For “whom” is himself, not a child. Most importantly, “miracle” isn’t going to be present, not even after belief has been expressed.  That should be clear if you have read the 2018 Task & Purpose article “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him” from Aaron Gell, the one upon which 892’s script is based. And, hopefully, in that clarity, you will understand that Brian’s actions were rooted in tragedy more than criminality.

That understanding, incredibly, is the basis of Abi Damaris Corbin’s direction. It renders 892 as the sort of feature debut with the electricity and the heat to quake when nothing or everything is happening on screen. Together with director of photography Doug Emmett, angles chosen and movements employed have a gentleness to them that, in relation to the extreme turbulence in the performances, contrasts and cooperates, driving home the focus on the humanity that headlines might negate and press releases will – or at the least facilitating an opportunity to. It’s worth remembering that those involved were humans, above all. They were someone.

This is to say, as portrayed in Gell’s writing and also in Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s adaptation, Brian is not a monster. He finds no joy in ordering and terrifying the bank’s senior manager Estel (a piercing Nicole Beharie) and teller Rosa (an affecting Selenis Leyva), but only with them might he be able to show that he deserves to be taken seriously. And why not, really? He had fought and bled for his country, yet it, namely the Department of Veterans Affairs, would be the one to really jeopardise his existence.

The country has appraised Brian at $892, the same amount of the disability cheque the VA would give him each month – as well as what Brian said is in need of settling. Boyega is thunderous throughout in the flip-side of his Leroy Logan role, in Steve McQueen’s impactful Small Axe, as a man also trying to effect change to a society that despises it. Brian sweats a lot, though the actor’s performance turns those beads into tears. The character is mild-mannered, a trait Gell noted the real counterpart also had. So, when he has to shout, Boyega shows how it will crack his voice and his soul. Whomever is in that bank is not a cornered beast. He is, or was, just a desperate man.

“I’ve been holding on. I’ve been holding on, though. I held on,” Brian said, in one of many memorable scenes in 892. He is gripping the phone’s handset, but with the amount of strength one would invest on the last parachute of a crashing plane. He may be in control, but in actuality, Brian is just a part of three shades of panic in the bank – the one that would shift between Estel’s restrained one and Rosa’s untethered one.

To illustrate that, in between definitive moments of the standoff, Corbin would host moments where Brian converses with the women – even with Lisa (Connie Britton), a local news producer, and Sgt. Bernard (a commanding Michael K. Williams in his last role), the unofficial on-site negotiator. And, from them, she seems to lay bare how a country that “trademarked” greatness can have so many citizens in deep agony, in pure confusion.

How, or why, must it take someone already embracing death to see that they deserve life. How, and why, your worth is equal to your debt. 892 joins the fray of media, drama and documentary alike, to keep the spotlight on the most enduring kind of rot right below the star-spangled surface.

Rating: ★★★★

892 premiered at Sundance on Jan. 21, 2022

Director: Abi Damaris Corbin

Writers: Abi Damaris Corbin, Kwame Kwei-Armah

Cast: John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Levya, Michael K. Williams, Connie Britton, Jeffrey Donovan.