There were toothy smiles on the Senate floor on July 27th, when Senators Ted Cruz and Steve Daines gave each other a hearty fist bump celebrating the GOP strategy to block a key VA health care and benefits program for Veterans. Meanwhile, 17 veterans die by suicide each day and roughly 40,000 are homeless. There is a disturbing disconnect here between the politicians and budgetary offices, and the actual military members who are suffering and dying daily. One of them is Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley, played by John Boyega in the new film Breaking, who seems to be on a collision course with those statistics ever since his honorable discharge.
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Easley served the U.S. Marine Corps in Kuwait and Iraq mainly as a supply clerk, spending “up to 17 hours a day for months at a time without a break” in a warehouse that was regularly under mortar fire, according to Task & Purpose. Though he worked multiple jobs when he returned home, and even began a college degree, his severe PTSD, back pain, and mental health issues eventually rendered him 50% disabled and frequently unable to work; he’d travel frequently, and sometimes check himself into mental hospitals. He received a disability check for $892 a month from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), until he didn’t.
What became his final check would be taken from him to cover an unpaid college bill; he had just promised his daughter a dog and was about to be kicked out of his motel. This is where Breaking begins, diving quickly and with queasy suspense into a heartbreaking hostage situation which the film expertly uses to mourn the state of veterans in America and expose the broken systems and institutions which contributed to the crime.
The True Story of Brian Easley in Breaking
By almost all accounts, Breaking is extremely faithful to Easley’s true story (exhaustively recounted in the aforementioned Task & Purpose article). The film begins with Easley being thrown out of a VA office after he caused a scene, upset that all the small amount of money he used to live on had been diverted (that amount was $892, which was the original title of Breaking when it premiered at Sundance).
The next day, July 7th, 2017, he enters into a Wells Fargo bank with a backpack, gray hoodie, and his hand near a detonator, which he says is connected to the bomb in his pack. Easley allows everybody to leave the bank except two women — the bank manager and his teller. He isn’t some criminal mastermind, and he isn’t malicious; he asks them to call the police and the news networks and tells them that if anyone is going to die, it will just be him. He doesn’t want the bank’s money and refuses it when they offer it to him. He says that he wants $892 from the VA, but ultimately he just wants to make a priceless point.
Easley is disturbed, suspicious, and prone to outbursts, but he’s never cruel or hurtful. He treats his hostages with great respect, as he does with nearly everybody. The film is relentlessly true to life, including scenes where, “He fielded calls from random bank customers, politely informing them that there was an emergency underway and that they should call back later,” according to Task & Purpose.
Easley did not seem to be a bad guy, despite what he did at Wells Fargo, and Breaking never vilifies him. While he was absent from some of his daughter’s life, the film is accurate when it shows him on the phone with his daughter, reading biblical scripture and praying with her in what had become a daily routine.
Breaking doesn’t treat Easley as a hero either; there are no heroes or winners here. Instead, the film’s title clues audiences into its perspective — this is a man pushed to his breaking point by systems that had been breaking down for decades (if they were ever even whole to begin with), a man doomed to become breaking news.
Breaking Down Different Broken Systems
Director and co-writer (along with playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah) Abi Damaris Corbin explores several broken systems here, but almost always with subtlety and in service to Breaking’s character study and suspense. First and foremost, of course, is the VA, which has been notoriously problematic; “It’s like getting medical care at the post office,” one veteran told the New York Post in an article on VA horror stories, and that’s an insult to the post office. Easley’s hostage negotiator in the film and in real life (played posthumously by the great Michael K. Williams) was a former Marine as well and commiserated with Easley over the phone about the VA.
That hostage negotiator is part of another broken system that Breaking deftly explores — policing. Without being obvious or polemical, the film details the grotesque militarization of the police, which responded to Easley with the fire department, the bomb squad, SWAT, a K-9 unit, the ATF, the FBI, and the GBI (Georgia’s equivalent of the FBI), along with that crisis negotiation team and the sheriff’s department.
Instead of sending Easley $892 from the VA, thousands upon thousands of dollars were spent in taxpayer money sending in a veritable army of militaristic policing, which only escalated the situation into further tragedy. With all of these hot heads and trigger-happy fingers mixing together from a vast swath of barely connected units, it seems only obvious that things would go wrong.
Related: Watch the New Trailer for Breaking Starring John Boyega and Michael K. Williams
Breaking also indicts the news media, albeit with more tact, as a reporter (played by Connie Britton) and her boss seem less interested in any true humanity than they are in communicating to the police and getting a scoop. There’s also the banking system itself; making a film set in and around Wells Fargo in 2017 simply can’t avoid this. That was the year in which many people discovered that Wells Fargo had been creating fake checking and saving accounts, along with unwanted insurance policies, for millions of people, in addition to foreclosing on hundreds of homes, illegally denying loans and government assistance to applicable individuals ‘on accident.’ Wells Fargo has since settled civil and criminal suits for $3 billion.
Nicole Beharie and Michael K. Williams Are Great in His Final Movie
Breaking makes it relatively clear that it’s the systems and institutions, and the hell of bureaucracy itself, which fails people, and not necessarily individuals. The women hostages working at Wells Fargo are nice enough; the manager (played brilliantly by Nicole Beharie, hilarious in the upcoming Honk For Jesus) sympathizes with Easley and is selfless in ensuring the safety of others. Selenis Leyva (so good in Orange is the New Black) is good as the bank teller, not having much to do except be afraid, but she sells the hell out of that. It isn’t their fault that Wells Fargo committed horrible crimes against struggling people.
Similarly, it isn’t the hostage negotiator’s fault that the system of policing is broken, deadly, and mismanaged. He knows that he’s a cog in a mechanistic wheel, and realizes that the machine is broken, but is genuinely trying to do his best. It’s a beautiful, poignant performance from the late Michael Kenneth Williams, and would be the very last character he’d ever play before his death in 2021 (he filmed the upcoming movie Surrounded prior to filming Breaking).
It’s fitting, really — Williams’ career was kickstarted (with some arguably racist casting) by playing criminals and drug dealers before landing the role of a lifetime as Omar in The Wire, in which he played a different kind of both; in Breaking, he’s on the opposite side of the law, trying to defuse a criminal situation.
John Boyega is Perfect at His Breaking Point
Ultimately, Breaking stands or falls based on the actor playing that unwitting criminal, and John Boyega’s performance ensures that the film stands tall. He’s absolutely amazing here, galaxies away from his work in Star Wars and an entirely different person than his South London roots implied in his great debut Attack the Block. Boyega is both likable and intimidating, a man who’s easy to feel empathy for and who has an engrained sense of respect and courtesy, but who has obviously been broken by life, institutions, and his own brain. It’s immediately one of the best performances of the year.
Related: John Boyega Gives Update on Attack the Block 2, Reveals He’s Co-Writing Film
Easley has become the kind of man who simply can’t stop his own outbursts, and then immediately evinces his guilt and remorse with an almost physically apologetic presence. He’s lashing out against the broken systems (b.s. for short, perhaps) of the world, endlessly frustrated with bureaucracy, tired of being mummified in red tape. There were obviously many ways this story could’ve been told, and some may have even resulted in a better film. Nonetheless, what’s presented in Breaking is done extremely well, and is wise to focus on broken systems. Easley’s hostage situation, in which he not only wants $892 but would also like to simply share his story, to talk to the media and tell his side, is almost an exaggerated metaphor for what’s happening everywhere.
People are at their breaking points across the world, having been failed by the institutions they trust, pay, and are loyal to. What does a person do when everything breaks? What’s left to do? Anger, outrage, violence, and the exasperated, desperate feeling of just wanting someone to pay attention. Is this not the definition of protest? When everything has failed and there is no hope, a person tends to still have two things — a body, and the story of how they were broken. Easley used his, and Breaking honors it with a searing, tragic, but relatable rallying cry of a film, one which, in a better world, would prevent the next political fist bump.
Originally titled 892, Breaking is produced by Salmira Productions, EPIC Magazine, Little Lamb, UpperRoom Productions, and is distributed by Bleecker Street. Breaking will be in theaters on Aug. 26th, with select advance screenings tonight, Aug. 25th.