2022, PG-13, 103 min. Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin. Starring John Boyega, Michael Kenneth Williams, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Olivia Washington, London Covington, Connie Britton, Jeffrey Donovan.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 26, 2022
From the start, tense hostage thriller Breaking wants you to side with the polite African American man in a gray hoodie who passes a scribbled note informing a bank teller he’s carrying a bomb. And with good reason. In the opening scene preceding this declaration, two security guards drag a wailing Brian Brown-Easley (an excellent Boyega) from an office building and roughly deposit him face down on the sidewalk outside the entrance. Once unshackled from handcuffs, Brian embarrassedly wipes the tears from his bruised face as a nearby woman hands him his eyeglasses in a gesture of kindness. So, what has happened to this broken man up to the moment of this public humiliation? It’s a bang-up way to begin a movie that thrives on demonstrating empathy for someone helplessly swallowed whole by a depersonalized system that ultimately harms more than it helps.
The based-on-a-true-story screenplay is adapted by director Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah from a 2018 online investigatory article in Task & Purpose, “‘They Didn’t Have to Kill Him’: The Death of Lance Corporal Brian Easley.” It soon reveals why the traumatized Brian subsequently enters a Wells Fargo branch in suburban Marietta, Ga., to demand a very specific amount of money. We soon learn this psychologically scarred Iraq War veteran isn’t detaining his two understandably frightened but sympathetic female bank employee hostages (Beharie and Leyva) for anything like a ransom or extortion payment. Rather, the decorated former Marine with a patient ex-wife (Washington) and adored grade-school daughter (Covington) has staged this seemingly desperate act to publicize his insensitive treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs, whose bureaucratic practices have redirected a lifeline disability check to cover a debt and left him without any financial means to pay rent or feed himself. No question he’s a slightly disturbed individual (there are hints of post-traumatic stress disorder), but all he wants is what’s owed him, nothing more, and he’s constantly apologizing to his hostages and providing assurances of no intended harm to them. When we finally witness about halfway through the movie what transpired just prior to the opening scene outside the VA offices, it’s not only a punch to the gut, but also a sobering cri de coeur pleading for the humane treatment of our damaged soldiery.
Breaking also subtly indicts the implicit racism of federal and local law enforcement more focused on bringing the justifiably paranoid Brian down than hearing him out (the itchy trigger fingers of the SWAT team are noticeably white), as well as the often deplorable intrusion of the news media into highly volatile situations like the one depicted here. In her first feature-length film, director Corbin deftly creates a sense of tension, though the movie sacrifices this relative tautness toward the end in an emotional phone conversation between Brian and his daughter, who somehow escapes the scrutiny of her mother and FBI agents to take his call. The best thing in this movie is the performance by a cast that rarely falters. It’s solid, from top to bottom. The Sundance Film Festival deservedly awarded Breaking a Special Jury Prize for its ensemble of actors earlier this year. Among those honored cast members is the late Michael Kenneth Williams (best known for The Wire), who gives the movie a worthy moral center in the role of the hostage negotiator earnestly trying to avert potentially tragic consequences. R.I.P. Omar Little.