In ‘Breaking’, a desperate John Boyega holds a bank hostage

Based on the true story of when former American war veteran Brian Brown-Easley held a bank hostage after being denied his VA disability award, Breakup (Previously 892) is a suspenseful thriller that also poignantly highlights the injustices that veterans in our country still suffer today.

Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin from a screenplay she wrote with Kwame Kwei-Armah (based on this article), Breakup combines the best of big screen filmmaking with more emotional and human storytelling. I’ve seen and enjoyed the thrilling Hollywood hostage takings before, but knowing that this story was based on a real event, the movie resonates a little differently when watching it.

In the lead role, John Boyega plays the aforementioned Brian, a former U.S. Marine who is now collecting disability benefits just to get by, which he barely does. He takes long walks to his low-income motel where he is staying, and his only relief is talking with his daughter on the phone every night (but even that is cut off). When a VA processing error denies Brian’s final disability payment, he is threatened with homelessness and ultimately pushed to the brink.

The next day, Brian calmly walks into a local Wells Fargo bank in Atlanta and, after politely interacting with the bank teller, calmly informs him that he has a bomb in his backpack. Here, the story follows its suspenseful course. But something is different about this heist. Brian lets most of the people in the bank go immediately and calmly asks for his demands: to speak to a hostage negotiator and have his story televised by the local media.

We find that Brian is a man who, though incredibly confrontational, still has a good heart. It’s clear that he has no intention of hurting anyone, including his two hostages, Estel Valérie (Nicole Beharie) and Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva). He repeatedly apologizes to them for the situation he put them in, and at one point even answers one of the bank’s phone calls from someone asking about his 401k – that he is trying to help. When the bank offers to credit his account, he refuses the offer. It has to come from the VA, and the events he creates are the only way for them, and the rest of the world, to finally listen.

It’s exciting to see Boyega in this role, playing an actual character from this world, and not from a galaxy far, far away. Boyega’s baggy clothes, raspy voice and straightforward speech convey another side to his game that we’ve never seen before and expand his range considerably. The journey Brian is on is demanding, requiring everything Boyega has.

As the situation escalates, he talks to a news producer (Connie Britton) and eventually, the hostage negotiator (Michael K. Williams). A veteran himself, his conversation with Brian creates a bond between them and a bond is formed. He sees Brian’s plight and his safety becomes his own concern as well. In his latest film role, Williams commands the screen every time we see him. His mere presence lends an unparalleled gravitas to this, and to all the movies he’s starred in. And while he will be greatly missed, it’s a final performance worth remembering by the late actor.

Corbin balances the mounting suspense of the hostage situation with the more intimate scenes of Brian and his inner circle of confidants. The scenes with Rosa and Estel make us sympathize with him more and more. As the suspense builds – from a quiet sunny day to, at its climax, a barrage of helicopters, tanks, ephemeral command centers and journalists –Breakup also keeps Brian and his mission front and center. When we finally learn how much money he was denied and is now asking for, it stops the movie in its tracks with impact. Considering the dangerous situation he’s put himself in (and how he knows he might not make it out alive), you realize that’s not the amount of money that he asks that he truly seeks, but merely an awareness of the injustice he, and many others, have been denied.

Without giving away the ending, Brian would probably be thrilled to know that his story is now being told and shared with the world. I hadn’t heard this story before seeing this film, but now that I have it, I am saddened to think of the despair some people experience and the lengths they will go to to redeem themselves. Brian Brown-Easley has brought to light a deep problem in our country, and Breakup drives this story forward. This is a problem that must be corrected at the federal level to ensure that those who serve our country are served in return.

This review originally aired on January 25, 2022 during the Sundance Film Festival.