Breaking Turns Real-Life Tragedy Into Mawkish Melodrama: Review

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The post Breaking Turns Real-Life Tragedy Into Mawkish Melodrama: Review appeared first on Consequence.

This review was part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered under the title 892. It has been updated for its theatrical release.

The Pitch: On July 17, 2017, former Marine lance corporal Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) walked into a Wells Fargo bank branch in the Atlanta suburbs, with a grey sweatshirt and backpack, and handed the teller a simple note with four words: I have a bomb. Soon, he’s taken hostages, with police negotiators and a confused media scrambling to defuse the situation. His demands? A measly $892 in disability funds denied to him by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Those are the circumstances reconstructed in Abi Damaris Corbin’s Breaking, a well-intentioned and occasionally striking thriller that charts the heartbreaking moments of a desperate man’s last gasps at visibility and relevance.

Attica! The hostage-crisis thriller is a familiar chestnut: from Dog Day Afternoon to John Q. and others, we know the usual beats. There’s the sympathetic but volatile protagonist, the uncertain rapport he builds with his hostages, the worried family members waiting with bated breath for answers. Corbin’s recreation of Brown-Easley’s harrowing day rarely strays from those formulas.

But what grace notes do appear come courtesy of the performances, particularly Boyega’s Easley, imbuing his subject with a saint’s patience leavened by righteous indignation. In the film’s opening minutes, we see glimpses of the circumstances that will lead him to his fateful decision — talking with his young daughter Kiah (London Covington) over the phone about what she’ll name her dog as he walks to his $25-a-night hotel, hoping to get one last word in before his minutes run out. He’s a good, kind man, or wants to be, but one too many layers of dignity have been stripped from him.

That Brian’s situation had gotten so dire that he’d take such reckless, drastic measures to secure a measly $900 for his family, speaks to the yawning chasm at the core of America’s treatment of its veterans, especially poor and Black ones. Boyega, taking over for Jonathan Majors (who had to drop out due to Marvel scheduling conflicts), fills Brian with a deeply sympathetic poise, cracking only when nudged just a bit too far by a delayed deadline here, a patronizing question there.

Breaking Movie Review John Boyega
Breaking Movie Review John Boyega

Breaking (Bleecker Street Media)

Is Life Hard For You? Really, what sets Easley apart is that the money doesn’t even seem to be the overriding issue for him: he just needs to be heard. When one of his hostages, the bank’s branch manager (Nicole Beharie, every line dripping with fear and compassion), offers to just give him the money from the bank, he refuses: he wants the VA’s money. It’s not just that he’s poor, but that he’s been wronged, and he’s looking to be made whole. That the bureaucratic nightmare that is veteran’s affairs won’t help him today is a certainty, and something inside Boyega’s resigned performance tells us he knows that.

It’s a tense setup, a worthy story to tell, with performers that are up to the material. But the script, co-written by Corbin and Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, stays so focused on the minutiae of the day that it’s hard for Breaking to sustain any kind of narrative momentum.

For a hostage-crisis movie, it’s remarkably slow goings, spinning us around in the same patronizing loops Brian has gone through up to this point. While most of the film takes place in that Wells Fargo branch, we’ll occasionally cut to the cops and media outside, or a local news producer (Connie Britton) who patiently tries to hear him out, or to Kiah and her mother (Olivia Washington) silently observing the proceedings.

By hopping from perspective to perspective, we eventually lose Brian’s story, turning what could be a deeper discussion of the desperate lives of Black veterans into a surface-level summary. And at the end of the day, we know almost as little about Brian as the world did, which feels a disservice to the man whose story Corbin seeks to honor.

Last Man Standing: If there’s anything that keeps the latter half of breaking afloat, it’s the arrival of Michael K. Williams as hostage negotiator Eli Bernard, with whom Brian will have a brief but empathetic back-and-forth before the end. Like Brian, Eli was a Marine, and more importantly, a Black man all too aware of the presumptions and struggles they go through on a daily basis.

Williams, whom we lost too soon just a few short months ago, does what he always did: turn even the thinnest of roles into a living, vibrant character, full of remarkable charm and self-assurance. He was the kind of actor you could always trust to take care of you on screen, and it’s a fitting sendoff for such an underrated performer. He can turn going out for a pack of smokes into high tragedy, and not even he can be overcome by the frustrating manipulativeness of Breaking‘s script.

The Verdict: Perhaps there’s something purposeful about Breaking‘s mawkishness, and its lack of narrative momentum: Brian’s story is, after all, a tragedy, no matter how sympathetic his story or meager his demands may be. But even so, there’s little to latch on here apart from its purpose as an actor’s showcase for Boyega, Beharie, and Williams, and its bittersweet status as a sendoff for the latter’s illustrious career.

Where to Watch: Breaking bursts into theaters on Friday, August 26th.

Trailer:

Breaking Turns Real-Life Tragedy Into Mawkish Melodrama: Review
Clint Worthington

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