Listen to the episode of This American Life from which Crown Heights is adapted and you can immediately pinpoint where Matt Ruskin’s film falls short. Across the original radio broadcast’s hour-long running time, reporter Anya Bourg managed to not only tell the compelling story of Carl King’s years-long quest for justice for his wrongly imprisoned friend, Colin Warner, but also pull us into the lives of these individuals, sketching in personalities with just enough detail for us to feel like we have a sense of who they are as people.
By contrast, Crown Heights reduces Colin and King’s story—one that’s as much about friendship as it is about the social forces that lead to the miscarriage of justice—to the level of an impersonal Law & Order episode. This is most apparent in Joe Hutshing and Paul Greenhouse’s editing, which brings a choppy efficiency to the film’s central saga, with scenes abruptly cutting off just after a particular narrative or emotional point has been made. Such a “just the facts, ma’am” approach may have worked for a film like JFK—which Hutshing co-edited—that was less interested in character than in narrative, theme, and mood. In the context of an intimate tale like this one, though, one gets an overriding feeling of a filmmaker so afraid of getting the facts of the story he’s dramatizing wrong that he denies it a resonant human core.
The closest Ruskin comes to granting these people any sense of interiority lies in a couple of brief flashbacks to Colin’s childhood in Trinidad. Even then, these scenes of young Colin running around a beach in slow motion don’t reveal anything about him as a person; they only make the more abstract and simplistic point of contrasting his freedom as a child with the imprisonment he’s forced to endure in his early adulthood. This heavy-handedness is worsened by a faux-poetic line—“Please don’t let it be a cell”—that Lakeith Stanfield, as Colin, whispers on the soundtrack twice during the film that doesn’t even make sense in context, given how little we know about Colin’s life before the events of the film. And with Crown Heights whizzing past the human details that might have given the film more depth and texture, we barely get a sense of the undying devotion to his friend that led Carl (Nnamdi Asomugha) to sacrifice even his own marriage in order to school himself on the intricacies of the legal process and eventually spearhead his own belated investigation into the truth behind the crime that put Colin in jail.
Stanfield does what he can to bring nuance to his character, his face seething with quiet resentment while he sits in a courtroom or in a jail cell, his occasional outbursts of angry violence suitably chilling in affect. Even stronger is the aura of decency that Asomugha conveys; his soft-spoken line readings are full of slow-burning conviction in justice eventually carrying the day. Both of these actors are forced to try to put across dimensional characterizations in quick bursts, however, and their honorable efforts aren’t enough to fully bring to life characters that have been conceived as no more than wax statues: Colin a totem of unjust suffering, Carl an icon of selfless idealism and persistence. Crown Heights plays like a human-interest story in which all of the humanity has been gutted in favor of deadening narrative efficiency.