Stripped to its bare essentials, Breaking is a chamber piece. An extremely tense one—botched daylight bank robbery, hostages, police snipers closing in, the lone bank robber growing increasingly unglued. Only four main characters are involved: the armed intruder himself (British actor John Boyega), two bank employees and the only police officer open to negotiating instead of shooting, who gets the robber on the phone, trying to talk him down. And then the heat gets turned up.
Even before he walks into the Wells Fargo bank in the Atlanta exurb of Marietta, GA, Brian Brown-Easley’s life is a catastrophe. The decorated Marine veteran of the Iraq war, who has an ex-wife (Olivia Washington) and a young daughter (London Covington) depending on him, suffers from PTSD and relies on his U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs disability check to get by. There’s a problem with the check, it’s late and/or missing and the VA is unresponsive. Brian’s world will fall apart without the money.
In our first glimpse of this desperate man, he’s already at the point of walking down the street with a homemade bomb. (When we saw the movie at SFFILM in April, it was titled 892, a reference to the amount of the missing check, $892.34—basically the amount Brian is willing to die for.)
Brian is the most apologetic bank robber imaginable. Everyone he speaks to rates a “Sir” or “Ma’am.” As he slips his holdup note to the teller, there are tears in his eyes. Terrified as they are, bank manager Estel (Nicole Beharie) and teller Rosa (Selenis Leyva) soon figure out that Brian doesn’t want to hurt anyone; he just can’t formulate his next move. His lack of aggressiveness goes along with his confusion about how to get his government money from a pair of scared bank workers.
Boyega’s performance is heartbreakingly anguished. Meanwhile, actors Beharie and Leyva re-enact the familiar Stockholm Syndrome scenario, from shock to terror to resigned acceptance to a calm trust in someone far more rattled than they are.
While they’re getting to know each other, a different kind of plot is going on outside. Police Sgt. Bernard (the late actor Michael Kenneth Williams), likewise an Iraq vet, argues for negotiation and repeatedly bumps up against his superiors, who have their own reasons for storming into the bank in a hail of bullets. Brian, his family, Bernard, Estel and Rosa are persons of color. Most of the cops, most of the TV reporters Brian contacts with his pathetic plea for help and virtually all the politicians swarming to the scene are white. Remember, we’re in Georgia here. When Bernard objects to the automatic deployment of snipers, his objection is brushed aside with extreme prejudice.
Breaking is based on a true story that took place in 2017. It’s directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, in her feature-film debut, from a screenplay she wrote with British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah. With its echoes of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, Corbin’s slow-burn crime story may indeed belong to the “procedural” school of thriller filmmaking—a step-by-step series of precise, interlocking actions and reactions—but we can’t help seeing it as simply a frank, ironic portrait of ordinary, exhausted people and their jobs.
Brian Brown-Easley, whose services are no longer required by his former employers, is unwilling to write himself off as merely unlucky. He doesn’t deserve to be that poor fool who blows himself up on the evening news and is quickly forgotten. But there’s no way out. Brian wants respect, but it is impossible to get. From the moment he pushes that handwritten note across the counter, he’s a dead man, just as he has predicted. The movie’s epilogue informs us that Brian’s family still has not received his payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs. After Breaking, we’ll never look at this type of story without thinking of him.