A U.S. Marine veteran pushed to the limits of his patience after being treated poorly by the Department of Veterans Affairs goes to extreme lengths to make sure his story is heard in Abi Damaris Corbin’s tense drama Breaking. John Boyega gives a riveting performance in the film, which is based on the heartbreaking true story of Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley, who threatened to blow up a bank in 2017 unless the V.A. gave him the $892 he was owed.
As the movie makes very clear, Brown-Easley doesn’t want to hurt anyone — he just wants someone to listen to him, to understand how wrong it is for convoluted government policies and bureaucratic technicalities to leave those who’ve served their country penniless and on the verge of becoming unhoused. It’s not about the dollar amount; it’s about what’s fair and right. While his circumstances don’t excuse Brown-Easley’s methods, they do make him extremely empathetic. So does Boyega’s moving portrayal, which is layered and complex.
Breaking centers on Brown-Easley, but his story overlaps with those of several memorable women, including his ex-wife, Cassandra (Olivia Washington), who cares about him even though she can’t be in a relationship with him anymore, and wants their daughter, Kiah (London Covington), to be secure in the knowledge that her father is a good man. There’s also local news producer Lisa Larson (Connie Britton), who’s the first journalist to hear Brown-Easley’s story and take him seriously. But the two women who are the closest to the action as it plays out are bank employees Estel (Nicole Beharie) and Rosa (Selenis Leyva), who are locked in with Brian as he fights to be heard. Beharie and Leyva are both memorable in their roles, with Beharie a particular standout as a mother who sees her own son in the desperate man who’s reluctantly holding her hostage.
It’s no spoiler to say that this story isn’t a happy one. But there’s no question that it’s an important one, laying bare the terrible dysfunction that plagues the V.A. — and, by extension, the U.S. government as a whole. Corbin, who co-wrote the script with Kwame Kwei-Armah, doesn’t shy away from sharing any of the painful facts of Brown-Easley’s life or experiences; it’s that commitment to the truth that ultimately makes her take on his actions so compelling. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand They say that desperate times call for desperate measures, but when those times are artificially manufactured by an uncaring and dysfunctional bureaucracy, the injustice of it all can drive a person insane. In Breaking, director/co-screenwriter Abi Damaris Corbin reimagines the true story of Lance Cpl. Brian Brown-Easley, who took hostages in a bank to try to force the U.S. Veterans Administration to refund to him a modest, but much-needed $892 that had been deducted from his disability benefits check. Many issues are raised in Breaking, including the rotten way the United States treats its military veterans; the physical, mental, and material difficulties faced by many veterans; and law enforcement’s unequal treatment of Blacks and whites who come into their sights. The real reason to see Breaking is to watch the complex and heartbreaking performance of John Boyega, who makes this largely character-driven movie a difficult, but compelling experience.
Pam Grady: Abi Damaris Corbin makes an indelible feature directing debut with this true-crime drama that is both a haunting character portrait and an indictment of bureaucracy indifferent to human suffering. John Boyega gives a soulful performance as Brian Brown-Easley, a Marine veteran coping with mental illness and dependent on VA disability payments to live. When that stipend is cut off, leaving him unable to contribute to his young daughter’s care or pay for his room, he enters a bank in desperation and a hostage situation ensues. While there are shades of Dog Day Afternoon in the scenario and the way Brown-Easley bonds with his frightened hostages, the focus in Corbin and co-screenwriter Kwame Kwei-Armah’s screenplay is on what led an ordinary man into such a situation and how the system is set up so that a tragic outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. The supporting cast is terrific, especially Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva as the hostages and the late Michael K. Williams (in his last role) as a police negotiator. But this Boyega’s show playing a man who is unfailingly polite, modest in his demands, and poignant in his hopeless desperation.
Leslie Combemale The true story of Brian Easley as told in Breaking is no less heartbreaking than when it happened. This film, though, brings the tragedy to life in a way that puts it in all our faces, and requires judgement or compassion, neglect or consideration. That alone gives new and urgent voice to the plight of soldiers, and the mental illness with which so many of them suffer. It is John Boyega, though, who brings it all to life. This is a tour-de-force for the actor, showing once again he deserves to be on the top of Hollywood’s A-list and at the top of every casting director’s want list. Read full review.
Loren King Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, who co-wrote the script with Kwame Kwei-Armah, Breaking is a spare and lean film with a stellar, racially diverse cast that gives the film’s depiction of working people authenticity. John Boyega is flat-out terrific as beaten down war veteran Brian Brown-Easley who, in an act of desperation, holds two women employees hostage in an Atlanta bank as he demands that the VA funds that are owed to him are paid. Without heavy-handedness, Breaking shows the irony of an embattled Marine barricaded in a room with weapons of war methodically trained on him. In a devastating finale, the unleashing of sophisticated, soulless machinery is a final indignity. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Breaking, Abi Damaris Corbin’s beautifully crafted and gripping truth-based drama, is about an ex-Marine who turns to desperate measures to convince the VA to pay the benefits owed to him so he can support his kids. The timely-as-timely-can-be story unfolds in documentary-like in style, but John Boyega’s brilliant performance as combat vet Brian Brown-Easley feels brutally authentic and is truly heart-wrenching. Equally affecting is Michael Kenneth Williams’ turn as a police officer who is trying to negotiate a non violent resolution to the situation that is on the brink of violence. Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva and Olivia Washington play strong, complex and sympathetic complex female characters who are forced into survival mode. Breaking is a hard watch, but a very rewarding one.
Sandie Angulo Chen: In Breaking (formerly known as 892), John Boyega gives a captivating and nuanced performance as a veteran who robs a bank not for the money but for the platform to secure the $892 of his disability payment he felt the VA owed him. Based on the true story of Lance Cpl. Brian Brown-Easley, director Abi Damaris Corbin’s drama is a reminder of how much mental health support our veterans need and how much despair they experience. Boyega imbues Brown-Easley with warmth and humor that pops up; he’s polite and honest to his two hostages, and he isn’t interested in robbing the cash in the bank. A heartbreaking and powerful drama that highlights not only Boyega’s acting skills but the supporting roles of Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva as the two bank employees.
Susan Wloszczyna: Filmmaker Abi Damaris Corbin’s Breaking is a military take on 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. In that film, Al Pacino’s bank robber committed a crime so he could pay for his male lover’s sex-change operation, which back in that era felt rather farcical given that LBTQ community was not exactly embraced back then. That stick-up job was based on a true story and so is this one. But the mood here is different — as it portrays how war vets aren’t given support they need to resume life as a civilian. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore Director Abi Damaris Corbin brings to life the true story of Brian Brown-Easley. John Boyega plays the real-life ex-Marine who, in a last-ditch effort to get the money the VA owes him, threatens to blow up a Wells Fargo Bank with two female managers he’s holding hostage. Breaking is an intense thriller that keeps your heart in your throat from beginning to end. It is one of the most extraordinary stories of principle I’ve ever seen. The final minutes of the film will rattle your soul. Read full review
Cate Marquis John Boyega gives a heart-rending performance in Breaking, a powerful drama about a decorated veteran reduced to homelessness after the V.A redirects his disability check to a for-profit school for a debt the veteran already paid. Desperate, he takes hostages in a bank, not to rob it but to use the media and police attention to get through to the V.A. and get them to pay his benefits. With the late Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire‘s Omar) in one of his last roles, as a hostage negotiator, director Abi Damaris Corbin gives us a timely, important drama with echoes of Dog Day Afternoon but a more modern, darker tragic story, one that is a striking commentary on economic unfairness, racism and an unfeeling system.
Director: Abi Damaris Corbin
Release Date: August 25, 2022
Running Time: 103 minutes
Screenwriters: Abi Damaris Corbin, Kwame Kwei-Armah
Distribution Company: Bleecker Street Media
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin