Abi Damaris Corbin's directorial debut Breaking is based on the true-story of 33 year-old Brian Brown-Easley, a Marine vet who was shot and killed by law enforcement after holding up a Wells Fargo in Atlanta. While the film is deeply compassionate and full of great performances, it is often hampered by a screenplay that fails to offer much more than the article it was based upon.
In fact, Aaron Gell's long-form article "They Didn't Have to Kill Him" actually gives more insight into Brown-Easley's situation. The man made it clear from the start that he had no intention of hurting anyone and was just trying to have his story heard. The VA had made a mistake and taken his monthly $892 disability check. This meant he would face homelessness. Desperate to correct the situation Brown-Easley pretended he had a bomb and held up the bank with two employees inside. Everyone involved remarked on how polite he was but also that his mental state was troubled.
John Boyega gives a terrific central performance here, conveying the heart that Brown-Easley had. He plays the role with a surprising amount of restraint given that the screenplay by Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah wants to give him big speeches often. Brown-Easley is living in a cheap motel and working two jobs when the film begins. He has to take time-off due to his physical and psychological damage he has after serving in Kuwait and Iraq. This leaves him dependent on the VA's check. His daughter Kiah (London Covington) is his central focus. The love for her drives him to a desperate measure.
Boyega gives the man a believable sincerity as he approaches teller Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) and asks her to call the police because he has a bomb. Branch manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) sees what is happening early and gets most of the customers and staff out of the bank before it gets locked down. The three of them make up the central cast for the rest of the film.
As the situation plays out, Breaking often points out how differently this would play out if Brown-Easley was white and not black. He knows he will be shot at the end of this ordeal. He wants to make a point and set the wrong done to him right. It is a shame that Corbin can't sustain the film's pace once the initial action is set. We get long phone conversations that stall the tension. Rosa and Estel are thinly written and we never understand them enough to care. When the late, great Michael K. Williams arrives as a police negotiator, he too is thinly formed. There is great heart to the exchanges here but Breaking never offers any insight into the situation. It remains stubbornly at the surface, more focused on the account of this tragic day than offering anything on the why.
However, at the center of the film is Boyega in a career-best performance. His thoughtful and emotional depiction here carries the film and makes Brown-Easley into a real person whom it is impossible not to feel for. It is a sensitive and deeply felt performance. It is just a shame the movie around him couldn't offer more insight. Breaking falls into a predictable formula early and never shakes it but the film is well-worth seeing for Boyega.