Producers: Salman Al-Rashid, Sam Frohman, Ashley Levinson, Kevin Turen and Mackenzie Fargo Director: Abi Damaris Corbin Screenplay: Abi Damaris Corbin, Kwame Kwei-Armah Cast: John Boyega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington, Jeffrey Donovan, London Covington, Kim D’Armond, Kelli Dawn Hancock, Robb Derringer and Miriam Silverman Distributor: Bleecker Street
Abi Damaris Corbin’s debut feature may remind you a good deal of both “Dog Day Afternoon” and “John Q,” but happily in terms of quality it’s closer to the former than the latter. Based on an actual 2017 incident that was analyzed by Aaron Gell in “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him,” which appeared in the online magazine Task & Purpose in 2018, it’s a taut, tense thriller about an ex-Marine suffering from PTSD who becomes a hostage-taker in a misguided attempt to resolve his problems with the VA.
Originally titled “892,” after the dollar amount in disability payments the protagonist argued had been wrongly withheld from him, “Breaking” showcases an outstanding performance by John Boyega and crisp, efficient direction by Corbin.
Boyega plays Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley, who’s separated from his wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington) but still devoted to his sweet young daughter Kiah (London Covington). He’s homeless, dependent on military disability benefits to rent a seedy motel room and buy food, and walking the streets of Atlanta. When his regular check is garnished, supposedly to cover an outstanding debt, and his visit to a crowded VA office ends in a scuffle after the harried clerk (Miriam Silverman) says she’s unable to help, he decides on a reckless plan. He’ll go to a branch of the Wells Fargo bank that should have received his check claiming to have a bomb in his backpack and threatening to blow it up unless the VA corrects its mistake immediately.
As portrayed here, he’s a man whose moods can change abruptly, but basically a courteous fellow, letting most of the customers and bank staff go and profusely apologizing to the two remaining employees—super-efficient manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) and nervous teller Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva)—whenever he goes into a rage. He also contacts a 911 operator (Kim D’Armond) to explain what’s happening, as well as local TV news producer Lisa Larson (Connie Britton) to ensure that his story gets out, told from his perspective.
Much of the running-time is devoted to the hostage situation in the bank—dominated by Boyega, who captures Easley’s emotional shifts skillfully but receives compelling support not only from Beharie and Leyva but from cinematographer Doug Emmett, editor Chris Witt and composer Michael Abels. Their collaboration invests the scenes in the darkened setting (courtesy of production designer Christian Snell) with a genuinely threatening, suspenseful tone.
But of course the action at the bank is interrupted by cutaways elsewhere—to Larson and her studio, to Cassandra and Kiah, even back to the VA office to recall Brian’s encounter there. The most extensive footage, however, is given over to the police response, with the bank quickly surrounded by cops—including some well-trained snipers. The chief (Robb Derringer) is there, as well as a no-nonsense, take-the-shot major (Jeffrey Donovan). But the most important person is crusty hostage negotiator Eli Bernard (Michael Kenneth Williams), who uses their shared background in the Marines to build a rapport with Easley and hopes to bring the situation to a peaceful conclusion.
There’s obviously a socio-economic subtext to “Breaking,” a critique of the way that the U.S. in general—and the VA in particular—have mistreated the nation’s veterans, with a political establishment that proclaims unstinting support for them while neglecting to provide the tools necessary to provide it. But Corbin, co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah, Boyega and their collaborators don’t allow the film to become a didactic screed, ensuring that while the larger context isn’t ignored, at its core it remains a powerful human story about a man driven to desperate measures by a system that failed to keep the promises made to him and his comrades-in-arms.