In 2017, Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega), an Iraq War veteran, walked into a Wells Fargo bank and held two employees hostage. He threatened that he had a bomb and would blow everyone up – though, he assured both women that he would let them leave before he detonated anything – unless his demands are met. His demands were simple: he wanted the money that Veterans Affairs owed him. The amount was $892.34. It is not a lot of money to many people, but it was a lot to him. Instead of sending him that amount in a disability check, the VA sent it to Lincoln College of Technology, which claimed Brian owed them that money for tuition. This money is the difference between Brian being homeless or having an apartment. Without it, he will not make rent and has exhausted every bit of patience in his landlord. Brian is under no illusions. He wants this money, at this point, for his ex-wife and daughter, as he knows the police will more than likely kill him for these actions. Breaking tells the story of this day, largely in real time with some flashbacks showing his latest meeting at the VA plus some Iraq War memories, and it is a harrowing and heartbreaking journey.
The directorial debut for Abi Damaris Corbin, Breaking rises on the performance of its cast. Boyega is terrific in the lead role, channeling Al Pacino from Dog Day Afternoon and Denzel Washington from John Q in striking a delicate balance. This man is a criminal and one need only take one look at hostages Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) and Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) to know how terrified they feel. He may be well-mannered and a good man in general, but this action he is taking has left both women panicked and writing goodbye letters to their families. Boyega brings that intensity constantly, making clear that his every action is unpredictable and potentially dangerous, while also dropping that defensive guard to show the broken man within. He is a sympathetic figure, a man left for dead by the administration built to help him re-adjust to society. He sacrificed for his country, was injured, and his mental health has clearly taken a toll. In return, he gets bureaucracy, brochures about adjusting to being homeless, and thrown out of the office for becoming upset.
It is a cruel hand and one cannot help but empathize, a quality that Boyega heightens through his authentic and deeply felt performance. It is not all about raising his voice – that is largely just a scared man putting up emotional guards – but also about the quiet moments with his daughter, his ex-wife, or even negotiator/retired Marine Eli Bernard (Michael K. Williams). Williams is a great counterpart for Boyega, appearing here in his final role. He has an authenticity and a believable nature that immediately makes Brian and the audience trust Eli. Even as the situation inside and outside spirals with chaos, Williams provides a calm and patient presence, even as he is internally dealing with the stress of the job and his coworkers in trying to keep the situation under control. Nicole Beharie also impresses, as Estel tries to keep a brave face while being torn up inside, convinced she is set to die. Beharie brings that to life without a word – just nervous glances, deep breaths, and the tone of her voice prove enough to capture the turbulent state of mind in which Estel and Rosa find themselves.
The real event lends Breaking plenty of natural tension which it capitalizes on whenever inside the bank, but the film struggles more in trying to build beyond that point. Williams may be great, but as the action cuts from inside to outside the bank, Breaking loses momentum. Add in flashbacks to Brian’s visit to Veterans Affairs and the film can really hit the brakes. The slack dialogue does not help with the action everywhere seemingly going around in circles. Each development is prolonged and takes multiple mentions to actually come to fruition. Perhaps it is realistic, as it would take time for the news media to pick up the story, for any progress in the release of the hostages to be made, and for the negotiator to actually arrive, but it proves frustrating. It feels as though Breaking is a great short film padded out for feature length, spinning around and having few narrative tricks available to it to make that extra time feel worthy. It could have found some material in exploring the social issues at the heart of the story in greater depth, but this option is not taken. Yes, the injustice is made clear – after Brian vaguely mentions Veterans Affairs a half-dozen times – through those flashbacks but the backstory to that is largely left in the background. There is a brief scene of news producer Lisa Larson (Connie Britton) meeting with an official from Veterans Affairs to get more clarity on how Brian was wronged, but even with that material being crucial to the narrative, it is just mentioned once, quickly cut away from, and forgotten about. Breaking is a very narrow and thin experience. Brushing up against a story of considerable magnitude and then pulling away, the film is content to be a straight-forward hostage suspense film that offers light critiques of how military veterans and Black people are treated in society without probing either in great detail beyond stating that problems exist.
Breaking is not a bad film, but it does leave potential to be an even better film on the table. The entire cast impresses, while debut director Abi Damaris Corbin shows promise. Though Breaking eschews building a larger social critique and struggles to blend its flashbacks, action within the bank, and action outside the bank into an equally satisfying experience, the film still stands as a successful and satisfying film.
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