Based on the real-life tragedy of former Marine Corps veteran Brian Brown-Easley — with writers Abi Damaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah working off Aaron Gell’s phenomenal Task and Purpose article — Breaking establishes Brian (John Boyega) as a forgotten member of society within seconds of its opening. We follow him on a lonely walk through the streets of Atlanta; he’s a drifter on the shoulders of busy highways. During these walks, he burns what few minutes he has left on his throwaway cell-phone with his cute daughter, Kiah (London Covington); time eventually expires mid-conversation, as does his patience.
Soon after, Brian walks into a Cobb County Wells Fargo, donning a backpack and a gray hoodie. After withdrawing $25, he passes a note to a teller named Rosa (Selenis Leyva), informing her that he has a bomb. Bank manager Estel (Nicole Beharie) reads Rosa’s face like a book from across the lobby and discretely starts ushering people out of the building. In a matter of minutes, it’s just Brian, Rosa, and Estel, and Brian wants one of them to call 911.
He demands cops, firetrucks, local news networks, national news networks, Don Lemon — the whole nine. He wants the world to see how the VA screwed him out of his disability check. He won’t take the bank’s money either. He specifically demands the VA pay him the money he’s owed after they garnished his check over bogus debt owed to a local tech school he attended on his GI Bill. Shacked up at a $25-a-night motel, he’s perilously close to being homeless.
Welcome to America. Thank you for your service.
Breaking should piss off anybody who heaps praiseful platitudes on servicemen and women, many of whom come home just to take the pipe from the very institutions that vowed to protect them. When the 911 operator mercifully gets him a negotiator — not without a lot of feet-dragging — in Eli Bernard (Michael K. Williams in his penultimate performance), a former Marine with a gruff yet gentle cadence, it seems as if a workable outcome can be achieved. Left pacing back-and-forth alongside Kiah is Cassandra (Olivia Washington), Brian’s ex-wife, who is victim to interrogation and orders without many answers.
Abi Damaris Corbin’s film has some flare. Its strongest style-points come in the form of swift camera pans that turn the bank lobby into the VA office; a deft transition to flashback that enhances the entire production. Also elevating the mostly confined display of tension are a litany of strong performances. It’s wonderful to see Boyega in another dimensional starring role; he’s liable to break you with his fluctuating emotions and justifiable desperation, all while being sympathetic and understanding to the women he’s taken hostage. Liable to go under-recognized is Nicole Beharie, who chokes through some of her dialog as a bank manager with a child who cannot afford to lose her. When Michael K. Williams shows up, and you remember that we lost him last year, it only makes the quietly humorous yet sincere affect of his character that much more impactful.
Where Breaking missteps is that it never wants to be anything more than a competently entertaining hostage thriller. Larger themes of America’s deplorable neglect for veterans — have you seen or heard one of those Camp Lejeune class action ads, by the way? — as well as any examination of racial/socioeconomic politics are merely hinted at but promptly sidelined. Breaking skirts an opportunity at greater significance. Instead, it’s content with the aesthetics of an overdirected drama at times. The scenes between Brain and Kiah are welcomed for their humanity, but often double-down on maudlin aesthetics in the form of a manipulative score.
Despite this, I couldn’t help but admire Boyega mining every emotion out of Brian Brown-Easley’s tragic last day coupled with both Beharie and Williams giving tender performances that ooze relatability. On a final note, damn Bleecker Street or whomever was responsible for trading the film’s original title “892” for the generic “Breaking.” The last thing a thriller needs is a title that renders it lost in search engines.
NOTE: Breaking is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Michael K. Williams, Olivia Washington, London Covington, and Jeffrey Donovan. Directed by: Abi Damaris Corbin.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!