In Breaking, John Boyega tells the tragic true story of a wrongfully imprisoned veteran.
Despite a fantastic cast that includes the great Michael K. Williams in his final screen role, the well-meaning film falls short.
It’s important to know about the tragic true events that inspired Abi Damaris Corbin’s compassionate, if not standard-issue, directorial debut before watching Breaking. On a hot summer day in 2017, 33-year-old Marine veteran Brian Brown-Easley was shot and killed by police after holding up an Atlanta Wells Fargo branch and claiming to have a bomb on him.
Brown-Easley made it clear that he did not intend to harm anyone or rob the bank, but rather to draw attention to his dire situation: the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had somehow denied him his modest $892 monthly disability check, an inexplicable and frustrating glitch that would leave him on the streets with no resources or options. Predictably, the man remembered by those involved in the ordeal as polite and composed had no bomb on him. He was also black, as are many victims of excessive force or police overreaction across the country.
The co-writers establish the dreadful world in which Easley lives with sensitivity and narrative economy in the opening moments of Breaking, which is based on a piece of long-form journalism titled “They Didn’t Have To Kill Him” that Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah adapted and dramatised. Brian, played with aplomb by John Boyega, struggles to make ends meet in a run-down motel, relying on disability checks to keep him afloat. He can’t hold down a job because of the physical and psychological blows he’s taken after serving honourably in both Kuwait and Iraq. Brian’s playful and loving conversation with his precious daughter Kiah (London Covington) is cut short when his phone runs out of credit, leaving him without work, a stable connection to his daughter, and a real home.
Boyega’s troubled character, played by an actor whose palpable sincerity and pressure-cooker intensity recalls a young Denzel Washington, then enters a suburban Wells Fargo, where he approaches friendly teller Rosa Diaz (Orange is the New Black’s terrific Selena Leyva) and slips her a note that simply reads, “I have a bomb.” Branch manager Estel Valerie (Juneteenth’s astonishing and poised Nicole Beharie) detects trouble before anyone else, but we’re soon trapped in the bank as only Estel, Rosa, and Brian must solve this impossible situation. Brian is well aware that his chances of escaping alive are slim. When he hears about a similar lawbreaker being apprehended unharmed by authorities, he thinks to himself, “He must be white.” But he wants to be heard.
Unfortunately, after the introduction of a number of brand-new characters on the other end of a phone line, Corbin’s steady control of the film’s tempo deteriorates. The most important of them, a negotiator that Brian demands, is played in his final film role by the late, great Michael K. Williams. Even with a fully formed Dog Day Afternoon-adjacent ecosystem to explore, Breaking’s narrative propulsion still lags; unlike Lumet’s classic, Breaking almost stubbornly remains surface-level in its insights into the characters. Estel’s quick thinking and compassion, Valerie’s fear, Eli’s impossible task to help Brian survive, and the media’s haphazard involvement all beg for more depth. Meanwhile, with Brian, the film rarely delves into the mind and wider life of this deceptively polite man who never makes a demand without first saying please or thank you.
A pair of insightful scenes provide welcome exceptions. One involves a flashback that pits Brian against uncaring bureaucracy, highlighting the point at which the helpless man feels compelled to take matters into his own hands. In the other, Brian politely takes a phone message for Rosa, only to lose his cool when the customer calls back—an illuminating moment that conveys his complexities more fully. Unfortunately, the monotony that surrounds them undersells the extreme pressure that Brian and his hostages are under.
Nonetheless, Breaking is a noble and deeply sensitive effort to remember an honourable veteran who was let down by the dysfunctional and racist country in which he bravely served. Despite a committed cast and a well-staged and heartbreakingly honest finale, Corbin falls short of breaking this story out of its predictable mould. So many of the details of this story are easily Google-able that the film’s disappointment is that you never get to know Brian Brown-Easley any better by the end than you do after the initial set-up—despite how badly it makes you want to.