Review: ’88’ teeters on the brink of being a great political thriller

88

88, a propulsive political thriller from writer director Eromose makes all the right noises. It has shades of All The President’s Men, draws audiences in like Spotlight, yet lands just shy of mirroring The Ides of March. Jam-packed with jargon-heavy dialogue concerning political action committees, or PACS for short, Eromose steals a leaf from Jurassic Park by way of The Big Short to make things easier.

Centering all the action around Femi Jackson (Brandon Victor Dixon), a financial campaign manager for Presidential candidate Harold Roundtree (Orlando Jones), 88 comes out swinging hard from the outset. Referencing race specific hot topics including Black Lives Matter, and MCU empowerment flick Black Panther, as well as contemporary rap icon turned business mogul 50 Cent.

The film is not only concerned with the financial mismanagement of campaign funds through money laundering by non-profit organizations, but seeks to tackle other pertinent issues as well by diving deep into ambiguous territory, categorically stating that influence through power is more useful than any blatant attempts at racial subjugation. That is where much of the potency of 88 comes from, as examples of prejudice are played out in various forms throughout the running time.

On the home front, Femi’s wife Maria Jackson (Naturi Naughton) encounters professional discrimination from colleagues at her bank, while Ola Jackson (Jeremiah King) is taught to fear authority figures because of his skin color. In the other corner (doing a pastiche of television inquisitor Charlie Rose) sits Ron Holt (William Fichtner), who grills Roundtree over his political intentions in numerous soundbite segues.

With so many serious themes being tackled over the two-hour running time, 88 awkwardly flips between being a family melodrama and conspiracy thriller, without settling on either one. Eromose has clearly done his research, and the screenplay is packed with some truly terrifying statistics, but often this turns Femi into a mouthpiece for those personal opinions. Opinions which may overload audiences with excessive amounts of information, as Femi passionately pursues every piece of evidence.

In terms of performances, though, 88 is faultless; the supporting cast of ensemble players really commit themselves to the political chicanery at hand, carving characters into the fabric of the story and delivering something truly inspired into the bargain. Standouts include Michael Harney as Fred Fowlkes, a confidant and ally to Femi as 88 unfolds, while Fichtner also delivers as seasoned television broadcaster Holt, attempting to glean some truth from his political interviewee.

Special mention should also go to Jeremiah King as Femi’s young son Ola, too, who is pivotal in visually selling the heavy-handed symbolism that the film employs around race. Sharing some small but vital moments opposite Dixon, the father/son combo discovers common ground bonding over Black Panther and police etiquette.

Unfortunately, as touching as these moments are, the family unit of Ola, Femi and Maria clearly gave Eromose his biggest narrative headache. Every time audiences are pulled away from the political intrigue elements, 88 loses momentum as the dynamic lacks definition and feels divisive, which means that all the solid character work laid down elsewhere feels wasted, as Femi gets detained by a transparent plot device.

Not only does this undo the emotional investment essential to making 88 work, but it really starts to feel like a preaching exercise rather than entertainment, one that does away with subtlety in its latter stages and becomes wrapped up in ensuring people are informed rather than enlightened, leaving 88 teetering just on the edge of greatness as a result.

In many ways, it strives to replicate Alan J Pakula’s classic All The President’s Men, yet never really sticks the landing – leaving a well-intentioned and politically potent piece of filmmaking in no man’s land. 88 might lack the consistent dramatic impact of a Redford and Hoffman tag team, or fall short when it comes balancing tonal shifts like Pakula, yet it remains a commendable effort. It may also drop the dramatic ball a handful of times, but there is still some serious substance tucked away in a complex thriller that combines politics, power and prejudice into a thematic brew of some potency.