Editor’s note: Apple TV+ is making “The Banker” available for free to nonsubscribers through the end of June in order to encourage discussion about civil rights issues in the United States.
It’s sort of ironic that Apple, a company often on the cutting edge of modern technology, has filled its streaming service with films that could be charitably called “dad movies.”
They have a Samuel L. Jackson civil rights drama and a Tom Hanks WWII thriller. They even have a Ron Howard-produced documentary called “Dads,” which feels a little bit too on the nose if I’m being honest.
So these films aren’t exactly as bleeding edge as the latest iPad or iPhone. But if “The Banker” proves anything, it is that there are considerable pleasures to be found in a “dad movie” well told.
The cast chemistry sparkles, the production design stands tall and the story educates and informs even as it entertains. It may not reinvent the wheel, but since when did the wheel need reinventing?
The biggest asset of “The Banker” may be its stranger-than-fiction true story, which is the sort of thing even the most creative screenwriter couldn’t make up: Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a pair of African-American men had significant successes in the banking and real estate industries in California and Texas despite systemic racism that prevented them from doing so. They used the banks they owned as a way to covertly lend capital to struggling African-American businesses and renovated countless real estate properties to house upwardly mobile black people.
So how exactly did Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) and Joe Morris (Jackson) pull off this trick? The same way the Greeks entered Troy – with a distraction.
Said distraction is Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) a white businessman turned day laborer whom Garrett and Morris trained to be their face in the white world and a front for their business interests.
If this is beginning to sound a bit like a particularly socially conscious heist thriller, you’re on the right track. That’s definitely how Nolfi frames “The Banker,” and the film’s best scenes are in the middle chapters as Garrett, Morris and Steiner hatch their big con both on the golf course and in the board room.
There’s little of the stifling self-importance that can be common in this sort of civil rights drama. Instead, Nolfi sticks a bit closer to Ted Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” playbook. He keeps the viewer informed and educated, of course, but he also keeps the film in a state of perpetual motion, and he isn’t afraid to crack a joke once in a while. It’s a difficult tonal tightrope to walk, but he pulls it off well.
That tone is helped along by a game cast, particularly Jackson who digs into this role with all the profane swagger he can muster. We’ve become so accustomed to see Jackson slum his way through middling Marvel movies that it can be easy to forget what a dynamic and electric performer he can be in the right material. He digs into the Morris character in a way he hasn’t embraced a character in ages. He gives a great charismatic performance, and at 71 years old, easily puts his younger costars to shame.
Hoult is also quite good, especially since his character arc didn’t go where I expected it to. While I expected the Steiner character to self-destruct through hubris and casually racist attitudes, that didn’t happen. Yes, Steiner flies a bit too close to the sun, but he only does so in order to prove himself to two black men that he admires and aspires to be like. Steiner is an interesting character, in other words, and Hoult is as likable as he’s ever been in the role.
Mackie, on the other hand, is completely subdued, and he and Jackson often seem to be in completely different movies. If Jackson overacts at times, Mackie perpetually underacts. There’s a thematic reason for this- Garrett’s perpetual poker face allegedly hides some deep anger- and Mackie’s odd couple dynamic with Jackson is often hilarious. But it’s not a particularly endearing or memorable performance.
Nia Long is even more ill-served as Garrett’s wife. While she has a few nice scenes, including one with Hoult, she is too often reduced to the obligatory faithful wife stereotype.
Despite being written by four screenwriters, the script is cohesive and propulsive and only occasionally gets bogged down in financial lingo. If you don’t know a cap rate from a premium, you’ll be just fine, but that sort of knowledge might help you enjoy “The Banker” (rated PG-13 for some strong language including a sexual reference and racial epithets and smoking throughout) a little bit more.
The costume design by Aieshia Lee is nostalgic and effective. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen films the story in the sort of washed-out sepia tone that it practically requires. The score by H. Scott Salinas is in the properly propulsive heist movie mode.
Almost all the pieces click together to create thoughtful, and often delightful, entertainment. “The Banker” doesn’t dazzle with technique, flash or pace, but it works thanks to its beating human heart. It is as earnest and educational as it is entertaining, which is something to be treasured.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.