BREAKING— 4 STARS
Not long into the hostage situation unfolding in Breaking we see that its perpetrator is no ordinary would-be robber. Even though he claims to have a bomb in his backpack, he doesn’t brandish a weapon and lets all the customers in the lobby go before locking the doors. Over the next several hours that transpire, he apologizes repeatedly to his two remaining bank employee hostages and takes mind of their physical comfort. He doesn’t act violently and even takes down the phone messages of oblivious customers calling into the branch. Most importantly, it is revealed he is not there for the thousands of dollars available of the bank’s money.
It would be really easy for a movie like Breaking, tip-toeing in the Dog Day Afternoon direction, to turn up the brightness of the pariah spotlights and crank up the volume on the injustice pulpit loudspeakers. That’s not so here. Director Abi Damaris Corbin resists the temptations to pound messages and shout showy monologues. He and his screenwriting partner Kwame Kwei-Armah uphold the simple and poignant principles that were at hand with this true story and on the central figure’s mind during a fateful July day in 2017.
Former Marine Brian Brown-Easley (Attack the Block’s John Boyega) is having great trouble making ends meet to support himself, his ex-wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington of Lee Daniels’ The Butler), and young daughter Kiah (London Covington of Abbot Elementary) in the Smyrna suburb of Atlanta. Jobs have been hard to come by, rent is due, aid has been denied, and his disability check from the VA has been held over a technicality. Without money, he is homeless.
These dire straits prompted Brian to enter a Wells Fargo bank branch. He passes a note to a homely teller named Rosa (Orange is the New Black’s Selenis Leyva) about a bomb, directly asks for the alarm to be triggered, and gets the building locked down with the himself, the teller, and the manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie of Miss Juneteenth) inside. From there, the aforementioned behaviors start to materialize in Brian Brown-Easley with each bead of sweat and puffed cigarette.
LESSON #1: THE INSUFFICIENCY OF AID WITHIN VETERAN AFFAIRS– The opening lead-up of Breaking and several flashbacks to earlier efforts of Brian Brown-Easley highlight the glaring and terribly unfortunate deficiencies of government support available to those who served their country. Brian was but a single example of many similar cases. At one point, the man is handcuffed and hauled out of an office facility for questioning the policies that test both monotonous patience and daily survival. In the end, all he wants is the $892 due to him from the VA and not a dollar more or a penny from some other substitute institution.
John Boyega offers a stellar lead performance that has already garnered awards attention on the festival circuit and deserves more as the year concludes. The actor composes the mental state of this character with targeted imbalance. Every frantic bout of shouting is paired with a nervous twitch of desperation or a spoken lament that cements his virtues. Breaking could have easily inflated false heroism into this character and given him stump speeches to pontificate a laundry list of bigger messages. Instead, Boyega is a dynamic prism of relatable reality.
LESSON #2: KINDNESS DURING CRISIS– Through this escalating ordeal that very much creeps closer to dangerous calamity, there is a streak of decency to this man. Brian is shaken by his financial circumstances and wants what he wants, but is very aware, like a true honorably discharged former soldier, of not bringing harm to those who do not deserve it. His benevolence towards his hostages cracks their frightened composure, particularly Estel. She outwardly wrestles with the potential personal answers of “how did I help” this event. Estel reaches a place where she pleads “I need you not to die.” That’s fear transformed into hope and kindness on a rare level, and Nicole Beharie delivers that heft wonderfully.
There’s a crucial juncture in Breaking that happens at the end of the second act. It is typified by important changes to the voices and depth of the conversations. Up to that point, the only communication between Brian and the outside is an active phone call with television journalist Lisa Larson (Connie Britton). In time, her questions veer to banality where it is clear the press is not the right distiller of the greater matter. Breakthroughs arrive with the entry of Sgt. Eli Bernard, a negotiator played by the late Michael K. Williams who’s grown wary watching the fruitless responses to Brian’s small demands and the increasing tactical perimeter of law enforcement.
LESSON #3: SHARING EMPATHY– When Eli and Brian begin their phone conversation, the entire attitude of the situation changes and the film drastically improves. As fate would have it, Eli is a fellow Marine veteran. Unlike a disconnected TV personality from a different caste, this man understands Brian like no one else could. The stirring empathy shared between the two is composed brilliantly through the script and the editing of Chris Witt (Finding You) that bridges the emotional actors across a divided setting. My goodness, even in a supporting role, this kind of important presence could not have been a better swan song for Williams who died prematurely by drug overdose nearly a year ago.
Those familiar with the fate of Brian Brown-Easley from the Task & Purpose source article “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him” written by Aaron Gell know that pain is coming without sugarcoating. His story would likely make a better documentary than a dramatic feature. Yet, to its commendable credit, Breaking upholds much of the truth that happened that day with very little dramatic license applied to manufacture fictional suspense. Others may desire larger and louder justice presented against the many layered failures of ethics echoing from this tragedy. Instead, Breaking holds a shrewd quality of strength that remains contained to the main character’s simple virtues. When the man’s words and actions on their own can express the lost dignity and humanity at the heart of the trouble, megaphones and soapboxes from other places are far less necessary.