Breaking upset me.
Not in the usual way. Abi Damaris Corbin’s paint-by-numbers heist-story-gone-wrong follows the same logical beats as Mann’s Heat or Thief, Bigelow’s Point Break, and Gudegast’s Den of Thieves. To an extent, though, I don’t agree with the pull quote on the marketing, Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon.
Based on the 2018 Task & Force article, “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him,” by Aaron Gell, Breaking is the story of a hero’s struggle to adapt to civilian life after serving this country as a former Marine Corps officer. John Boyega plays Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley, a broken man down to his last pennies, struggling to keep a roof over his head and food in his stomach, let alone take care of a beautiful daughter.
Brown-Easley has classic signs of PTSD. Now, whether he was being treated or not is not for Breaking to say. Screenwriters Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah don’t say. The movie focuses on establishing Brown-Easley’s living situation, his love for his daughter, Cassandra (Olivia Washington), and his estranged wife, Kiah (London Covington). The story immediately shifts into a bright, sunny day when Brian enters the Wells Fargo branch, which he eventually holds up with two hostages, Estel (Nicole Beharie) and Rosa (Selenis Leyva).
Breaking is based on a true story, which should add elements of reality to the film. Despite the lean run time of 103 minutes, the reality doesn’t fully set in. Part of the story’s challenge is the inclusion of flashbacks depicting the events that led Brian to hold up the bank.
Story aside, Boyega is exceptionally strong in the role. He plays Brian with conviction. His love for his daughter but an inability to keep his promises is heart-wrenching. Similarly, Brian’s struggles with Kiah just add pressure to Brian’s resolve to be able to provide for himself and his family. A salient point on this tack is that Brian does understand how his actions affect those in his sphere, family and stranger alike.
Michael Kenneth Williams’ Eli Bernard, the Atlanta PD’s hostage negotiator, strengthens Boyega’s performance as the two characters plays off each other. Because both were in the military, they can relate experiences putting the two characters on an even playing field.
As a part of the heist, Brian seeks attention on his plight, a reasonable expectation of someone who was wronged egregiously. Connie Britton’s Lisa Larson, a veteran producer at a local TV station, puts his story on the air and investigates Brian’s accusations.
This is where Breaking succeeds. True to the richness of the characters, the entire ensemble won the 2022 Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition.
However, as the story moves through its beats, Breaking falls short as its characters are its main thrust. Amid the heist, the story loses focus. Characters important to Brian become less so, and story elements, especially the foreshortened investigation, box the story in.
Breaking should be a lightning rod of a message film. That it loses its way shouldn’t lessen the import of that message. The film did have my anxiety up; however, it wasn’t until a final title card that I got irate. I was angry at the system that allowed a veteran to fall into such a state that Brian felt he had no choice but to take the actions he did.
Breaking might be a heist movie in the greatest tradition of the other titles mentioned above. John Boyega’s portrayal of Brian Brown-Easley anchors the film at the expense of the story, which carries an important message about how we treat our veterans returning home.
Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin
Written by Abi Demaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armath based on They Didn’t Have to Kill Him by Aaron Gell
Starring John Boyega, Nicole Frohman, Mackenzie Fargo, Selenis Levya, Connie Britton, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kenneth Williams
R, 103 mins, Bleeker Street