On July 17, 2017, Brian Brown-Easley held up a Wells Fargo location in Georgia with two employees inside, claiming to have a bomb and demanding to be heard. On Aug. 26, 2022, the story of that crisis was released in the film “Breaking,” and the world might just listen.
The film follows Easley (John Boyega), an honorably discharged U.S. Marine fallen upon hard times, who was repeatedly denied a financial support check he believed he was owed from Veterans Affairs. At the tipping point of homelessness and unable to provide for his daughter, he desperately decides to threaten to blow up a bank, taking two employees (Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva) hostage and demanding from the V.A. the exact amount of money listed on the check denied to him. The plot unfolds as Easley interacts with his hostages and the crisis negotiator (Michael K. Williams) sent to talk him down.
The film hits heaviest when the actors are delivering the blows, but the script packs a more subtle punch that is almost as important. Dialogue flows naturally in both calm and chaotic moments — many lines are direct quotes from the day itself, yet blend seamlessly with Corbin and Kwei-Armah’s writing in wording and tone. In their first feature-length script, the writers find the right depth of focus in Easley’s story, keeping it mostly contained to the hours of the incident, with a measured use of flashbacks for a change of scenery and deepening of character. While the film’s pacing could have been cleaned up a bit in either the edit or a further draft of the script, the few lulls and jolts that don’t quite fit are mostly negligible next to the rest of the deliberately paced or exhilarating stretches of its runtime.
Visually, the film is nice enough. The lighting and coloring are never hard to look at, and the camera has a few particularly nice moments of movement and focus. However, like many other films set primarily in one location, this one often struggles to stay visually interesting while depicting an unchanging setting populated by characters moving relatively little. Corbin and Emmet’s use of framing is both their visual language at its most eloquent, and their most successful attempt at overcoming the limitations they faced.
As mentioned earlier, the cast is the strongest aspect of the film, which relies heavily on the interplay between Easley and the other characters. Michael K. Williams plays Eli Bernard, a fictionalized version of the very real police crisis negotiator who spoke to Easley. Williams’ measured, yet enthralling performance is put to screen after his tragic death in 2021 — the film and his performance make for a posthumous high point in his legacy, that fact alone justifying a trip to the theater. Nicole Beharie wonderfully portrays someone trying desperately to maintain self-control while being terrified for her life. The few moments where her fear cracks through that facade are achingly well-realized.
Above even these wonderful performances is John Boyega. The actor delivers what might be the performance of the year, acting across the entire spectrum of emotion and effortlessly shifting in intensity. His portrayal of Easley captures the desperation, manners, humor, paranoia, rage, and kind heart that the man displayed throughout the crisis.
“Breaking” marks the latest and most direct case in a growing trend that Boyega seems to be following in his roles. From “Detroit” (2017) to “Small Axe: Red, White, and Blue” (2020), not to mention his character in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy, Boyega tends to play people caught in opposition to oppressive systems. Sometimes they fight from the inside and sometimes from the outside, sometimes their methods are justified and sometimes they’re not — but they’re all individuals warring against systems incapable of recognizing the people they protect, ones that inherently lack grace or compassion. This is what “Breaking” is about — sure, it’s a crime thriller about a man and a bomb threat, but the film begs you to consider what led Easley to his titular breaking point, and what the message was that he so desperately wanted the world to hear.