The true story of a bank robber who wasn’t really a robber, the heart wrenching drama Breaking features a moving performance by John Boyega as a Iraq War vet driven to a desperate act, as well as fine work by the late Michael K. Williams as the police negotiator trying to save him. Boyega portrays Brian Brown-Easley, a former Marine Corp lance corporal who walked into a Wells Fargo bank in an Atlanta suburb in July 2017 and handed the teller a note stating that he had a bomb in his backpack.
Easley is not interested in cash from the teller’s drawer or loot from the vault. Instead, he demands a wire transfer into his Wells Fargo account from the Veterans Administration to cover a disability check derailed by red tape that the impoverished 33-year-old feels (with his entire being) is rightfully owed him.
The amount? $892.34
Inspired by the 2018 article by journalist Aaron Gell, writer-director Abi Damaris Corbin, and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose 2009 play, Seize the Day, provided Boyega with his professional debut, have written a gripping film that is at its most artful in its prelude, which provides a glimpse at the long sad day that preceded the bank stand-off.
The film opens with the protagonist sitting on the steps of a public building, his face bruised, his clothes disheveled. Here is a man who’s literally been shown the door by the world. Flashbacks later reveal that he was handcuffed and thrown to the ground by V.A. guards after he became upset that his disability check had been gobbled up by a systemic glitch that often leaves veterans with no cash and no recourse. The case worker handed him a brochure: “Homelessness and You.”
Bereft, Easley walks back across the city alongside the noisy Atlanta expressway, talking on his cell phone to his young daughter (London Covington), who lives with her mother. She adores her emotionally troubled father, and is holding him to an oft-repeated promise to buy her a puppy. She has one all picked out. He tries to explain how hard such a purchase will be, but the minutes run out on his flip phone.
When you’re poor in America, you walk and walk, often right next to the freeway, and you never stop worrying about being able to put extra minutes on your phone. He can’t afford the puppy and the manager of the cheap motel where he’s staying has warned him to pay up or “your shit is mine.” All of this plays out to the mournful strains of a classical cello that begins as a solo played by a street musician and ends at the pivotal Wells Fargo locale.
Inside, a scribbled threat of a bomb sends the friendly teller Rosa (Selenis Leyva) into a body-trembling panic even as her manager, Estel (Nicole Beharie) calmly clears the bank of staff and customers. Soon, it’s just Brian, Rosa and Estel, and Breaking becomes a chamber piece, with each actor, all of them extraordinary, carving out individual emotional spaces that together form a sense of life’s terrible fragility. All three are persons of color, and have children, and are living for them, each and every moment, despite a world that makes that incredibly hard.
Outside crowds gather. Brian’s been talking to a local reporter (Connie Britton) on the phone. On nearby roofs, police snipers take position. Eventually, the hostage negotiator arrives. Played by Williams, in his final performance, Eli Bernard is a vet, too, and as a Black man, understands all too well when the “robber” says, “We both know I’m gonna die in here. Nothing out there for me but bullets.”
Eli’s bosses are white, and so are those snipers, and there’s a sense that Eli must stave off their growing impatience with the crazy Black guy in the bank, even as he works to assure Brian that today will be the exception to what they both know is true of the world.
If some of the characters outside the bank are fictional, the filmmakers have been faithful to the larger events of the day, although some may wish for more detail in the home stretch. The resolution of the stand-off with police is abrupt and Corbin is frustratingly skimpy on the specifics of what occurred, as well as its aftermath.
Still, the impact of Boyega’s performance overwhelms any narrative missteps. It’s richly physical. When goofing for his daughter over the phone, his face is open and full of light, but out in the world, that same face closes with the intensity of inner worries. So often, Brian looks like the young man that he still is, his body turned in with doubt or as if to protect himself from an expected blow. Those blows came for Brian Brown-Easley in Iraq and Kuwait, and then kept on coming once he was home. The deeply felt Breaking, at least, restores honor to a good man.
Read more reviews by Chuck Wilson here.
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