From bureaucratic violence against veterans to nonchalant neglect of the neurodivergent and the penchant for police to murder Black people, “Breaking” has a smorgasbord of anger-inducing issues that it just kinda lightly pushes around its plate. At its core is a performance that would be an automatic Oscar nomination, if John Boyega’s family didn’t hail from Nigeria but from, say, Casey Affleck’s part of Boston. It’s more “Fruitvale Station” than “Dog Day Afternoon,” which isn’t a complaint so much as a suggestion to recalibrate expectations from “intense bank robbery” to “feeling very bad about everything in life.”
Boyega plays Brian Brown-Easley, an honorably discharged Marine who really did threaten to blow up a Wells Fargo in Atlanta over about $900 in VA payments back in 2017. Insisting it wasn’t about the money but the principle, Brian retains only two hostages: co-managers Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) and Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie). The negotiator, fellow Marine Eli Bernard (Michael K. Williams), is slow to arrive, so Brian makes a bunch of phone calls, including one to a TV station employee (Connie Britton). Nobody outside of the bank seems to have any sense of urgency, which is either an intentional decision or major miscalculation by writer/director Abi Damaris Corbin and writer Kwame Kwei-Armah.
That is to say, if “Breaking” wanted to produce in its audience the same frustration felt by its central character, it works. Nothing happens for long stretches. Long stretches…and absolutely nothing… Instead of leveraging this inactivity for tension, with thrumming music pushing things toward an immovably immoral resolution, Corbin and team just leave things hanging there.
Is this a sly commentary on its central themes? America’s inability to care for those who fight beneath its flag is a “known issue” dating back centuries now with no progress. Our callous disregard of mental health issues in poor people in particular, in Black poor people especially, isn’t being met with any progress. We have a riot or two every year, but nobody has defunded so much as one war-grade armored Humvee with rocket launchers from a local police precinct. Is the movie purposefully replicating our stagnancy on these matters? Or is it that the film only hints at what should be said, screamed, or mourned?
To be fair, Boyega does all those things. And in far less ballyhooed role, Beharie ignites celluloid as a no-nonsense, broken-hearted bank runner. In one of his last roles, Williams is as magnetic as ever, even if he’s given little space and time to operate. Still, the film doesn’t expound or expand upon well-known bullshittery. “Breaking” should make us want to break stuff. Instead, it is more like a tragic tale told on a Twitter thread. Actually, more like a retweet of that thread “for awareness,” but in need of more animosity. An artist has recently become renowned for his paintings of Wells Fargo banks on fire. It should probably feel more like that.
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Natasha Alvar at Cultured Vultures says “At times, it does feel like the movie’s stalling for time, as things move towards the inevitable ending.”
Jared Mobarak at jaredmobarak.com says “This is a very important story with the sort of moving parts that can instill real change and dialogue, but the script never pushes itself far enough to light the match. It’s content to honor who its subject was rather than what he said.”
Shane Slater at That Shelf says “In the end, [Breaking] thus emerges as a poignant character study, rather than the throwback thrillers it falls short of emulating. In doing so, it acts as a tribute to those who have been left behind by America’s inequitable system of governance.”