It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Apple TV+’s first feature film was scheduled for a big December release, pitching it as a contender for the awards season. But at the eleventh hour the bandwagon ground to a halt: because of a question mark hanging over one of its producers, the Hollywood premiere was cancelled and The Banker was relegated to a quiet arrival on the channel at the end of last month.
You can see why hopes were high for award recognition. A true story about equality, high production values, two charismatic leading men in Anthony Mackie and Samuel L Jackson – it seemed to be all there. Since working as a shoeshine boy in his Texas home town, Bernard Garrett (Mackie) has always aimed to achieve the American dream and, in 1960s LA, he gets his chance. It’s a risky plan, one that takes on the racist establishment by helping other African Americans to have their own homes and make money. He and business partner Joe Morris (Jackson) train Matt Steiner (Nicholas Hoult) to be the acceptable face of their growing business empire, while they pose as his employees, and it works – until they attract the attention of the federal government.
A film with ambition, it certainly lives up to it for the first half, with a brisk, energetic depiction of how Garrett and Morris become partners despite their differences – and there are many – and coach Steiner in Pygmalion style. He proves to be unexpectedly adept at figures and negotiating, so that his ambition grows, even though essentially he’s just the front man. But half way through the film’s head of steam starts to subside, as the script becomes bogged down in banking jargon and legalese. With its sparkle sucked away, the narrative becomes flat and less engaging, despite the efforts of the two leading men.
That it fades to this extent does a disservice to the little known story, one which isn’t just about Garrett and Morris achieving their financial ambitions but equally the people who borrowed money from them so they could improve their lives. Such opportunities didn’t come the way of black people at the time. It’s left to Mackie and Jackson to keep our attention and they’re, not unexpectedly, up to the job. Despite being an MCU regular, Mackie’s often overlooked as an actor, yet his on-screen strengths are very much on show here, burying his anger at daily indignities and displaying a rigidity that comes perilously close to pomposity. More significantly, he’s more than a match for the showier Jackson, who relishes his more laid-back character, and the result is a strong double act of equals.
At its conclusion, The Banker shows us that Garrett and Morris didn’t just impact the lives of the people who borrowed for them: their actions brought about change for the wider black population. The film, however, doesn’t have the same clout. Its potential to be great fizzles out, leaving us with something safe rather than energising. We’ve learnt something new, for sure, but that much-needed inspirational note is a little flat.
Drama, True Life, History | Cert: 12A | Apple Original | Apple TV+, 20 March 2020 | Dir. George Nolfi | Anthony Mackie, Samuel L Jackson, Nicholas Hoult, Nia Long, Colm Meaney, Taylor Black