Morgan Leigh Davies’s review published on Letterboxd:
I feel veeeeery ambivalent about this -- I was sort of avoiding it because I don't generally like this type of film (historical biopic about an Important Topic) much, and... well, it's a historical biopic about an Important Topic. My viewing experience was definitely affected, too, by the fact that I've been watching so many Czech New Wave films in the past couple weeks, which are both artistically gonzo and have such a wide range of approaches to critiquing the Communist system in Czechoslovakia. "Larks on a String," which I watched earlier today, is a brutal indictment of the Communist regime in the 1950s while also being quite playful and strange. (The end is viscerally upsetting, too.) By comparison this movie feels quite staid and not hugely interesting as a piece of art -- but that's not completely its fault. A victim of timing!
I do appreciate what this film is trying to do and I understand why the filmmakers wanted to make a really big mainstream movie about this topic that would reach a large audience, but there's an inherent tension in making a film about revolutionary politics within the Hollywood studio system. It's just never going to completely work. I was also thinking about "Mangrove" watching this, which is the ideal outcome for a conventional film about a real historical episode that has a strong political point of view, and I think the biggest difference between them is that the script of "Mangrove" is just miles, miles better than this movie's -- it's NOT burdened by the same sense of compromise and it's much more rich and specific in terms of the characters' community, life, and politics. It's obviously about an important story and it's trying to educate its audience but it doesn't have the same weight of being an Important Film, which I think trips this movie up a bit. It's obviously a monstrous story but the whole movie feels kind of dour, and I think the end would have more impact if the whole thing weren't weighted down by such a sense of doom the entire time. The fact that they pitched it as an alternate version of "The Departed" makes sense on a marketing level but doesn't come through in the movie -- "The Departed" has a lot to say about the police and the mob, but it's FUN. I think by using O'Neal as the frame device for this they were trying to give the film a sense of thriller suspense -- and I didn't find it boring, certainly -- but I don't think it achieves that kind of entertainment value at all, nor should it! But then using it as a model is weird.
This movie's screenplay is really weak, I think, both in terms of structure and on a dialogue level. The O'Neal stuff, as I mentioned, is a big problem -- not because it's not a potentially interesting device but because he remains so opaque throughout. Yes, there are explanations for his behavior you can point to, but I never felt like I was really inside his head, which obviously is a huge problem if you're structuring the movie around him as the informant. The information they give at the end about what happened to him is so incredibly upsetting but I never felt that from the movie itself, which seems like a missed opportunity. And on the other side I think the movie could have done a lot more to really explore the politics of the Black Panthers, what they were working toward, the internecine struggles between various radical groups, etc -- obviously this stuff is discussed/depicted in the film but I could often feel the movie slipping around certain things, particularly obviously the issue of capitalism which is just... not addressed! (The romance stuff is also pretty dire, though Fishback is good and does what she can.)
Kaluuya is, however, just ludicrously good -- the big speech he gives after getting out of prison is so by far the best scene in the movie; he should win the Oscar for that five minutes alone. I really wanted more of that feeling of almost religious emotion in the movie, I think -- obviously he's magnetic throughout and it's not hard to understand how he could persuade people to work with him, but that was the scene for me where the movie came alive in a different way. The movie is always slightly at a remove from that character, I think partly because of the way it uses O'Neal as a point-of-view character but also partly because the entire movie is designed to pay tribute to Fred Hampton. But for that to work I think the movie would have had to deliberately depict him as a slightly inaccessible messianic figure and really deeply dig into what is going on in O'Neal's head, which the movie doesn't really do either. Again -- it's a compromise. I hope it reaches people and encourages them to learn more about this topic which I definitely don't know a great deal about either -- it made me want to read a biography! But as a film... not a massive success I don't think.