Far too often, significant true-life stories can get ruined by attempting to dramatize them or make them more “cinematic.” The story of NFL player Brian Banks is certainly an important one to tell for many reasons, but you might get lost in the self-righteous nobility of this film or the underscoring of important moments by overly polished writing and acting. As played by Aldis Hodge (Straight Outta Compton), Banks was a high school football superstar on the verge of heading to USC to begin what would have likely been a successful run to pro ball. When a fellow student falsely accuses him of rape, not only is his football career derailed but he lands in prison and on probation for about 10 years.
Attempting to get his life back and make it possible for him to get a job and maybe even play football again, he contacts the California Innocence Project (led by Justin Brooks, played by Greg Kinnear) to help him. The group is hesitant to assist him, only because their primary mission is to get innocent prisoners with longer sentences out of jail, but Banks convinces them with an impassioned plea to help him reclaim a life that was callously tossed away by a crippled justice system. Thus begins the long and time-consuming task of clearing his name.
The fact that Brian Banks is directed by Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Patch Adams, Bruce Almighty) might come as a bit of shock to some, but the filmmaker has been on a bit of a do-gooder trip lately, and this story falls right in line with that. Working from a screenplay by Doug Atchison, Shadyac removes every ounce of subtlety from the story, making sure there is no doubt in our minds that Banks is innocent from the second we meet him. He has too many people on his side (including his mother, played by Sherri Shepherd, and new potential love interest, Karina, played by Melanie Liburd from “This Is Us”) to have it revealed that maybe he made a mistake. Instead, he heaps all of the blame for the original conviction on the accuser and her greedy mother, who got a handsome sum from the school district for not protecting her daughter, which is not to say the pair don’t deserve to be looked at as villains in this case.
The details of Banks’ case, at some points, are bizarre, including the fact that his accuser reached out to him on Faceback after he got out of jail, which resulted in getting a filmed confession by her admitting she lied, which was somehow inadmissible in court. The film does give us moments like that to get genuinely, understandably angry at the way the world works and at just how cold-hearted some people can be. Outside of those details, the film offers few surprises or moments of reflection or insight into a legal process that seems designed for failure. We assume that things will turn out a certain way for Banks because we’re watching a movie about him, which doesn’t allow for much in the way of dramatic tension.
While it’s certainly a good thing that this case is receiving the attention it deserves, I think there were better ways to tell this story to emphasize the almost Kafka-esque way the justice system makes it nearly impossible to overturn a conviction once it has been rendered. Hodge is a solid choice to play this character, and he conveys just the right balance of strength and being nearly broken by odds that are stacked against him. Kinnear is Kinnear and all that that implies. I tend to like him in most things, but this feels a bit like coasting. Brooks allows himself to be swayed by Banks’ heart, so that’s our shortcut to knowing he’s a nice guy. Brian Banks feels like a worthy made-for-cable endeavor, but there’s nothing about this big-screen telling that makes it seem like something you should spend money on.
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