I have a bomb.
To read Aaron Gell’s article about Brian Brown-Easley’s death from the military-centered publication Task & Purpose is to dive deep into the nuts and bolts of how a tragedy such as this occurred from systemic racism to the failure of organizations to help those it purports to help to mental illness and beyond. To watch Abi Damaris Corbin‘s cinematic depiction Breaking is to confront the incident’s emotional ramifications whether doing so manipulates the facts in the process or not. And that’s expected. Even if Corbin had decided to make a documentary, some form of manipulation is inherent to telling a compelling a story. Her and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah‘s job is to make us care about Brian’s plight and acknowledge the reasons he put his life on the line.
That’s exactly what they do with the assistance of a heartbreakingly powerful performance by John Boyega. Do things go a bit overboard with an almost silent climax taking us through the aftermath of what happens? Yes. There’s no question. But it’s a stylistic choice rather than a wild mischaracterization of the situation. Regardless of the often grossly negligent actions of others that led Brian into that Wells Fargo to take two women hostage and threaten to detonate a bomb if his demands weren’t met, none of what transpires does if he doesn’t walk through those doors. Corbin and Kwei-Armah aren’t erasing that fact, they’re merely ensuring that we understand it doesn’t somehow absolve those who put Brian on this path of their guilt. He didn’t have to die.
This is the central conceit. Everything on-screen corroborates it. From the laughable delay in finally getting Brian someone to talk to despite him calling 9-1-1 himself right after letting everyone but a teller (Selenis Leyva‘s Rosa) and manager (Nicole Beharie‘s Estel) leave to a refusal to comprehend just how simple his ask was (a $892 disability check that was hijacked in-full to pay a supposed “outstanding debt” instead of being deposited in his account as he flirted with homelessness), it’s not a stretch to jump to conspiracy level conclusions and wonder if the Marietta police force was truly working to ensure he didn’t walk out alive. Obvious paranoia aside (Brian believed his brother was in a cult trying to kill him), his fears about this day are founded.
The film guarantees we realize that duality. Everything it provides us straight down to the script’s structure in holding certain details back until later—shown via flashbacks in lieu of having Brian explain them via dialogue alone to the television news producer (Connie Britton‘s Lisa Larson) he calls in hopes of taking his gripe with the VA national or the hostage negotiator (Michael Kenneth Williams‘ Eli Bernard) who expertly builds a rapport of trust with him—maintains that what this troubled veteran needs can still be real despite some of his other issues sadly being delusions. All he wants is to be heard. He’s sick of being dismissed, infantilized, and abused simply because he dared to question a level of injustice that continues to be allowed without accountability.
It’s why he doesn’t rob the bank. He doesn’t want their money. He wants his. Where things go astray is in the decision to never really elaborate on that truth beyond shining Brian in a light of integrity. There’s a brief scene where Larson (conveniently) gets a tip from the woman who (while doing her job) turned Brian away when he came to the VA to file a grievance. She tells the journalist that it wasn’t the VA’s fault, but the school that demanded his check be garnished (although Gell’s article clarifies this by saying the VA garnished his check to recoup the money it already paid the school via the G.I. Bill). We’re talking a “gotcha” moment to blow this thing wide open that is completely ignored.
Not ignored in the sense that it provides additional context, but in the sense that the film doesn’t mention it again. Corbin and Kwei-Armah even put Larson back on-screen during the denouement, but only to talk about her role in the ordeal while propping herself up from the exposure. That is another relevant problem—the media exploiting people like Brian for ratings rather than altruistically giving him a platform to be heard—but it again feels shoehorned in and wasted insofar as saying something. 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.
I guess that’s the price of portraying what happened with an insular lens. You interpret “the bigger picture” as diminishing the focal point’s sorrowful impact. I can’t therefore begrudge the choice because Breaking is very good at what it is. But it could have been so much more, especially with what Boyega, Beharie, and Williams are bringing in every scene. Their genuine contrition, fearful defiance, and fiery compassion respectively add the necessary weight to really dig in and call the numerous transgressors out for their complicity. Seeing the latter two quietly resign themselves to what occurred is meaningful, but not going further projects a finality that separates Brian’s death from countless others like him. The film too often embraces genre exploits above message, feeling incomplete as a result.
 John Boyega in BREAKING. Courtesy of Bleecker Street.
 Connie Britton in BREAKING. Courtesy of Bleecker Street.
 Michael K. Williams in BREAKING. Courtesy of Bleecker Street.