‘Breaking’ Film Review: Powerful Performances Outshine Dramatization of True-Life Tragedy

Whatever its narrative shortcomings, Abi Damaris Corbin’s feature debut spotlights a stellar ensemble, including John Boyega and the late Michael Kenneth Williams


This film was originally reviewed at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival under its original title, “892.”

The mechanics of real life get in the way of the demands of drama in “Breaking,” although they do provide the opportunity for memorable performances and fluidly engaging filmmaking.

Telling the story of a pushed-to-the-brink Gulf War vet who takes two bank employees hostage over his frustrations with the Veterans Administration, it’s a film that hits some narrative bumps along the way without diminishing its tougher observations about race, the police, and the treatment of veterans..

Whatever storytelling shortcomings “Breaking” might have, however, it’s undeniably an impressive feature debut for co-writer and director Abi Damaris Corbin, who gets great work from a top-flight cast of performers, including the late Michael Kenneth Williams in one of his final roles.

In the film’s opening sequence, Damaris Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah immediately establish Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) as a man who’s been marginalized by society, following him on a long walk through Atlanta on roadways that were clearly designed for cars and not pedestrians. (That’s a trope that used to be reserved for movies about Los Angeles, but more and more modern cities have been designed to exclude people on foot.) He’s clearly got a loving relationship with his young daughter but can’t afford to add more minutes to his phone when it runs out in the middle of their conversation.

He’s financially desperate when he marches into a Cobb County Wells Fargo bank and calmly passes a note to teller Rosa (Selenis Leyva, “Orange Is the New Black”) saying that he’s got a bomb. Bank manager Estel (the sublime Nicole Beharie, “Miss Juneteenth”) can read Rosa’s panic from across the lobby, and she discreetly urges other patrons and employees to leave the building, immediately. Only Rosa and Estel stay behind, and Brian urges them to call 911.

He wants fire trucks, the news networks, the works, but the lackadaisical 911 operator can’t even seem to line up a negotiator for him. It’s not until Brian calls local news producer Lisa (Connie Britton) that he can generate enough public attention to explain why he’s doing this in the first place: The VA has garnished his check over a bogus debt to a for-profit tech school he attended on the GI Bill, and the loss of that money will send him into unhoused destitution, not that the bureau’s labyrinth of bureaucracy cares or offers concrete solutions.

It’s difficult to tell a hostages-in-a-bank story without calling “Dog Day Afternoon” to mind, but Damaris Corbin proves herself capable of treading new ground, particularly by showing rather than telling. As Brian recounts the incidents that have brought him to this day, director of photography Doug Emmett’s camera sweeps around him as the bank imperceptibly becomes the VA office, in a nearly invisible transition to flashback.

And while the film never blatantly makes a position about the racial politics of the hostage situation (where not only Brian but also both bank employees are people of color), it’s always clear that negotiator Eli (Williams) and the other policemen of color are more interested in patiently bringing about a non-violent resolution, while the white cops, including the chief of police, care more about tying things up quickly, whether or not Brian dies in the process. (Jeffrey Donovan, who’s got one of contemporary film’s greatest sneers, pops in as a higher-up who’s constantly undercutting Eli’s efforts.)

Williams’ and Boyega’s telephone interplay brings “Breaking” some of its most dramatically powerful scenes, but Leyva and Beharie are allowed grace and emotional heft in roles that other movies would have brushed off as sideline characters. Beharie’s Estel does her best to take charge of the situation, but she also contends with terror (at one point, she writes her young son a moving farewell letter on her phone) and empathy (once her captor reveals his motivations), depending on Brian’s mood and behavior over the course of the day.

Where the requirements of telling a true story bump against the drama comes in the final act of “Breaking”; what would seem to be the endpoint of the implied systemic racism throughout the film instead hinges upon the actions of one rogue participant, which undercuts the story’s power and its messaging. Compared to another recent recounting of an infuriating and tragic police standoff, “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain,” “Breaking” finds its impact diminished at the end.

This is a minor setback, however, in a film that offers such bounty from such a talented cast. It’s a film that gives talented actors a lot to work with, and their efforts, perhaps, might help bring justice to the real Brown-Easley family, who after five years are — according to the film — still waiting for a resolution from the VA.

“Breaking” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.