Going into Breaking, it’s important to at least know about the tragic true events that inspired Abi Damaris Corbin’s compassionate, if not standard-issue directorial debut. On a sweltering summer day in 2017, 33-year-old Marine veteran Brian Brown-Easley was shot and killed by law enforcement after holding up a Wells Fargo branch in Atlanta, claiming that he had a bomb on him.
Brown-Easley made it clear that he was not intending to hurt anyone or even rob the bank, but instead wanted the attention of the media in order to bring awareness to his dire situation: the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs somehow denied him his modest $892 monthly disability check, an inexplicable and maddening glitch that would put him on the streets with no resources or options. Predictably, the man who is remembered to be polite and composed by those involved in the ordeal had no bomb on him. And like many victims of excessive force or police overreaction across the country, he was black.
In the opening moments of Breaking—based on a piece of long-form journalism titled “They Didn’t Have To Kill Him” that was adapted and dramatized by Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah—the co-writers establish with sensitivity and narrative economy the dreadful world in which Easley dwells. Acutely played by John Boyega, mostly with emotional restraint (but occasionally, forgivable showiness), Brian barely scrapes by in a cheap motel, relying on disability checks that keep him afloat. He can’t sustain a job due to both the physical and psychological hits he’s taken after honorably serving in both Kuwait and Iraq. A playful and loving conversation with his precious daughter Kiah (London Covington) gets cut short when Brian runs out of credit on his phone, leaving him with no work, no stable connection to his daughter, and no real home.
Portrayed by an actor whose palpable sincerity and pressure-cooker intensity evokes a young Denzel Washington, Boyega’s troubled character subsequently enters a suburban Wells Fargo, where he approaches friendly teller Rosa Diaz (Orange is the New Black’s terrific Selenis Leyva) and slips her a note that simply reads, “I have a bomb.” Branch manager Estel Valerie (the astonishing and poised Nicole Beharie of Juneteenth) detects trouble before everyone else, but soon we’re locked in the bank as just Estel, Rosa and Brian must resolve this impossible situation. Deep down, Brian knows that his chances of walking out alive are slim. “He must be white,” he observes when he hears about a similar lawbreaker captured unharmed by the authorities. But he wants his voice heard.
Sadly, Corbin’s steady control of the film’s tempo weakens after the introduction of a number of brand-new characters at the other end of a phone line. The most significant of them, a negotiator that Brian demands, is played by the late, great Michael K. Williams in his final screen role. While there’s so much heart in the men’s exchanges, Breaking’s narrative propulsion still lags, even with a full-formed Dog Day Afternoon-adjacent ecosystem to explore; Breaking almost stubbornly remains surface-level in its insights into the characters, unlike Lumet’s classic. Estel’s nimble thinking and compassion, Valerie’s fear, Eli’s impossible task to facilitate Brian’s survival, and the media’s haphazard involvement all beg for more depth throughout. Meanwhile with Brian, the film seldom ventures inside the head and broader life of this disarmingly polite man, who never makes a demand without a please or a thank you.
Refreshing exceptions occur in a pair of insightful scenes. One involves a flashback that puts Brian at odds with unsympathetic bureaucracy, spotlighting the moment when the helpless man develops the need to take matters into his own hands. In the other, Brian politely takes a phone message for Rosa, only to lose his temper when the customer calls back—an illuminating moment that more fully communicates his complexity. Unfortunately, what surrounds them is a sense of monotony that undersells the extreme pressure both Brian and his hostages face.
Nevertheless, Breaking is a noble and deeply sensitive effort that aims to commemorate an honorable veteran who was failed by the dysfunctional and racist country that he bravely served. But despite a committed cast, and a well-staged and devastatingly truthful finale, Corbin fails to break this story out of its predictable mold. So many of this story’s details are easily Google-able that the disappointment of this film is that you never know Brian Brown-Easley any better by the end than you do after the initial set-up—although it badly makes you want to.