“I need to be on camera!” John Boyega’s Brian Brown-Easley shouts over the phone. He’s manic, shaky and desperate for what’s his. If you’ve just seen the trailer, it’s easy to believe that ‘Breaking’ is a drama. Think Michael Bay’s ‘Ambulance’, a dramatic film that takes place in a sort of bottle, with use of limited locations. I think, however, it’s important for us to know that ‘Breaking’ is a film based on real events. In 2017, on a hot summer day, Brian Brown-Easley, a Marine veteran, was shot and killed. He was holding up a Wells Fargo branch in Atlanta, Georgia. He claimed he had a bomb and let out all but 2 people, bank employees, exit.
From the beginning of the drama, Brown-Easley is adamant that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He doesn’t even want to rob the bank. He just wants what was denied him, his monthly payment of $892 from the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. A glitch left him without this resource and on the street. Brian held up the Wells Fargo because he wanted to bring media attention to his plight. One that is not singular in America.
‘Breaking’-which is based on a long form essay titled ‘They Didn’t Have to Kill Him’-takes time to create a vision of Brown-Easley’s life. There’s a sort of care that is often denied victims of our society’s cruelty. John Boyega, who has a famously expressive face, uses it to his advantage. His struggle is heartbreakingly showcased. Living in a cheap motel, unable to sustain a job after tours in Kuwait and Iraq left him physically and psychologically damaged. A conversation with his daughter Kiah is cut short when he runs out of minutes on his phone.
This is-apparently-the straw that breaks the camel’s back. With no reliable place to sleep, no connection to his daughter and no job, Brian is lost. He tries to get the V.A to acknowledge their mistake and rectify it-to provide him with the $892 that will allow him to stay at the motel and continue talking to his daughter, but he is unceremoniously thrown out. In a final act of desperation, brilliantly showcased by Boyega’s fidgeting hands, nervous eyes and a sincerity that bleeds through the screen, Brown-Easley walks into that Wells Fargo in an attempt to gain desperately needed attention.
He slides a simple note (“I have a bomb.”), across the counter to Rosa Diaz (an amazingly cast Selenis Levya of Orange is the New Black) and a regular suburban day is upended. Estele Valerie (the incomparable Nicole Beharie), the bank manager, is cool and focused under pressure. She notices something is off immediately, and starts to clear the bank. Brain sees the activity, but lets it happen. His goal is only to bring attention to himself, to get the money that was kept from him. Soon, we are locked in the bank with these three, Estele, Brian and Rosa, as they work to fix a situation they all know has one likely outcome.
Brian knows his chances of survival are slim. He even mentions that a similar situation that ends in the criminal being captured unharmed only worked out that way because “He must be white,”. But Brian is a man who is desperate and above all else, he wants his voice to be heard. This section of the film is perhaps when things become a bit less coherent. In an effort to keep most of the tension inside of the bank, the outside suffers.
When the negotiators enter the scene, led by the indomitable Michael K. Williams in what would be his final role, there’s not enough focus drawn to the character. I would have loved more time to explore Eli’s battle to make sure that Brian makes it out of that bank alive-and the terrible sorrow he must have felt when all of his efforts failed. Boyega and Williams share heart-wrenching phone calls but it still feels like we’re missing just a bit of something special.
Depth is lacking overall, perhaps because of a time constraint. We never get to dig deeply into Rosa’s fear, Estele’s determination to survive and her compassion for Brian and the arrival of the media only makes it that much harder to keep the pieces together. When we do get those moments of brilliance-the things that help us understand why Brian is so desperate-they are brief and leave you yearning for more.
At its core, Breaking is a film that does its level best to shine a sympathetic light on a veteran who served honorably and was doubly abandoned-and then executed-by a racist, careless country. A star cast and a heartbreaking finale-despite knowing the ending I prayed for something else-make this film one to watch, despite its other flaws.
Breaking is in theaters now!
For more from Aprille’, check out her interview with Dominique Fishback here!