‘Breaking’: In tense thriller, a desperate ex-Marine takes hostages to get his VA money

John Boyega shifts from reflection to rage as the frustrated veteran getting no help from his country.

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Suffering from PTSD, combat veteran Brian (John Boyega) brings a bomb to a bank in “Breaking.”

Bleecker Street

As is always the case when we watch a well-made film, we feel the better for it and are uplifted by the artistry involved—but in the case of the tense and tightly spun bank heist thriller “Breaking,” there’s a one-two gut punch of sadness accompanying the experience. Because this is the true story of a Marine veteran who reached the breaking point after the Department of Veterans Affairs failed him, and it’s also a posthumous film in the career of the brilliant Michael Kenneth Williams, who died last September at the age of 54.

Williams delivers another in a series of great performances in a supporting role, but the weight of the film rests on the shoulders of John Boyega, who alternates between moments of heartbreakingly quiet introspection, and startling fits of anger and rage as Brian Brown-Easley, who in January of 2017 walked into a Wells Fargo Bank in Marietta, Georgia, withdrew $25 from his sparse bank account and then handed the teller a note saying, “I have a bomb.”

For the remainder of this intense story, director and co-writer Abi Damaris Corbin focuses primarily on the mounting drama inside the bank and within the ranks of the teams of law enforcement personnel assembled outside, with the occasional flashback filling us in on Brian’s back story, including his frustrating experiences with the VA and his struggles to stay off the street while trying to maintain an upbeat and positive presence for his adoring young daughter Kiah (London Covington).



Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Abi Damaris Corbin and written by Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah. Rated PG-13 (for some violent content, and strong language). Running time: 103 minutes. Opens Wednesday at local theaters.

The result is reminiscent of a smaller-scale “Dog Day Afternoon,” in which we sympathize with everyone on all sides of this story: the man who claims he has a bomb; the two bank employees he’s holding hostage; the ex-wife (Olivia Washington) of the suspect, and the negotiator (played by Williams) who is a fellow Marine and tries valiantly and at times desperately to connect with the broken man inside the bank.

Based on a 2018 magazine article titled “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him” by Aaron Gell, “Breaking” opens with a scene of Brian in cuffs, dragged out of a VA center and hurled to the ground. A sympathetic woman hands Brian his eyeglasses, and he walks back into a world that has turned its back on him since he was discharged from the Marine Corps. With the minutes rapidly dwindling on his prepaid phone, Brian has a few precious moments talking to his daughter before he finds himself alone, with nowhere to go.

The following day, he walks into the bank and makes a bad situation infinitely worse by handing that note to a teller named Rosa (Selenis Leyva), who makes eye contact with her supervisor, Estel (Nicole Beharie), who instantly sizes up the situation and quietly marshals a number of customers and employees out the door before Brian even realizes Estel is on to him.

As Brian grows increasingly frustrated with the stalling tactics on the part of law enforcement, he phones a local TV station and connects with a sympathetic news producer (Connie Britton) who truly feels for Brian but also recognizes an immense scoop has dropped into her lap. Meanwhile, Williams’ Eli Bernard has to maneuver his way through the layers of bureaucracy forming outside the bank so he can connect on the phone with Brian.

The dialogue from director Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah crackles with an almost Mamet-like economy of words, as Brian addresses the bank tellers, the TV producer and the negotiator as “Sir” or “Ma’am,” military style, with the British-born Boyega convincingly affecting an American accent that reminded me more than a little of Denzel Washington’s cadence. As Eli scrambles to purchase a pack of cigarettes for Brian and keep him from taking any kind of drastic action, we learn Brian isn’t interested in holding up the bank, he just wants the money the VA wrongly withheld from him—and it’s all of $892.34. You’re worth more than $892! says Eli. I’m worth nothing, comes the reply from Brian.

“Breaking” doesn’t make any excuses for Brian’s actions, but it does provide context that makes us understand how he has reached this point. Here is a man who served his country in combat overseas, is clearly suffering from PTSD — and couldn’t find help. Walking into that bank was essentially a suicide mission, and he knew it. Adding great heart and humanity to this film are the performances of Selenis Leyva as Rosa, who is terrified to the point of near-paralysis, and Estel, who is equally frightened but maintains a calm and steady presence throughout the ordeal. We know that nobody will be the same after this day, and not everyone will live to see another sunrise.

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