John Boyega stars in true story of a veteran at his 'Breaking' point
The tragic case of Brian Brown-Easley didn’t take the nation by storm back in 2017 when he walked into a Marietta, Georgia, Wells Fargo branch and passed the teller a note reading, “I have a bomb.” But attention was what the former Marine demanded, and deserved, in that moment of desperation, and with “Breaking,” a depiction of the tense hours that unfolded during the hostage standoff that ensued, Brown-Easley’s story finally gets its due, though the resolution is far from heartening.
Written by director Abi Damaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah, “Breaking” keeps a tight focus on the events of the day and offers a showcase for star John Boyega, who gives one of the most transformed, and riveting, performances of his career. With an economy of storytelling, just an opening scene and a few flashbacks are needed to situate the audience in Brown-Easley’s frame of mind when he walked into that bank.
On the verge of homelessness after a disability check from Veterans Affairs was diverted to a student loan payment, and struggling with mental illness, Brian is distressed and hopeless. He wants to maintain a relationship with his beloved daughter and hopes to get her a puppy. His rock bottom and last resort is to take hostages in the bank in order to bring attention to his plight and demand a payment from the VA: just $892.
He ends up barricaded inside with two bank employees, Estel (Nicole Beharie) and Rosa (Selenis Leyva), demanding his payment, a hostage negotiator and television cameras. What’s clear from the outset is that this situation, while triggered by the struggles of poverty, isn’t about money at all. He has no intention of robbing the bank and refuses offers of payment from Estel. What Brian needs is attention to the injustice of his situation and someone to listen to him.
He finds a kind ear in Lisa Larson (Connie Britton), a TV news producer who picks up the tip line that Brian calls from the bank. He finds connection and comfort in Eli Bernard (Michael K. Williams, in his last screen performance), the hostage negotiator and former Marine who attempts to keep the situation under control and works to get Brian and the hostages out safely. In Estel and Rosa, his ostensible victims, he finds witnesses to his pain and suffering and strange companions in the escalating hostage situation.
“Breaking” is Corbin’s first solo directorial effort, and it’s a solid debut: tense, topical and a showcase for host of fantastic performances. The entire cast is excellent — the ensemble was awarded with a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival where the film premiered earlier this year. But the film wouldn’t work without Boyega. He’s rough and rangy, his hangdog expression sorrowful, punctuated with bursts of mania, paranoia and sometimes even humor.
The film is a tense, slow-burn thriller and with a heavy, somber tone appropriate for a social justice drama, but there are times when its pace sags and it can’t sustain the tension. Within the walls of the bank, with just Boyega, Beharie and Leyva, as calls are made to 911, the news, the police and Brian’s loved ones, the film is at its most taut and suspenseful.
As soon as it ventures outside, to explore the machinations of law enforcement, the film loses some of its tightly strung tension as characters fade to the background. The storytelling around the police maneuvers, especially the sniper who looms in the distance is a bit messy, and while Williams gives a fine performance, his character feels underwritten without much to do.
Corbin and Kwei-Armah, along with Boyega, give Brown-Easley’s story what he always wanted and deserved: attention to the injustice that is the crush of bureaucracy that can chew up and abandon those who have served our country. In this tragic story, Corbin resists placing blame on any individual — the only villain is simply the system itself.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violent content, and strong language)
Running time: 1:48