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‘Breaking’ exposes the tragic consequences of neglect

“Breaking” (formerly known as “892”) (2022). Cast: John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Michael Kenneth Williams, Connie Britton, Olivia Washington, London Covington, Jeffrey Donovan, Robb Derringer, Kate Burton, Miriam Silverman, Kelli Hancock, Carmine Giovinazzo. Director: Abi Damaris Corbin. Screenplay: Abi Damaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah. Source Article: Aaron Gell, “’They didn’t have to kill him’: The death of Lance Corporal Brian Easley,” taskandpurpose.com/Longreads.com (April 9, 2018). Web site. Trailer.

When our needs go unduly neglected, frustration and the prospect of dire consequences can set in. That’s especially true when we must rely on others to come through for us, particularly when they make promises that are vital to our well-being. A failure to follow through on our behalf can get out of hand quickly, with potentially explosive results, an outcome depicted in the troubling new fact-based drama, “Breaking” (formerly known as “892”).

It’s 2017, and Iraq War veteran Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) is angry and frustrated – and with good reason. The honorably discharged Marine, who willingly and dutifully served his country, has been railroaded by the US government, specifically the Veterans Administration (VA), the agency charged with looking after the welfare of soldiers after completion of their service. His feelings of desperation, in turn, have evolved to desperate acts, all in an attempt to have his voice heard by an inept, discompassionate bureaucracy.

In short, Easley wants his $892 disability check, which he contends was wrongly confiscated from him by the VA. The Atlanta resident depends on that money to live, since he, like many veterans, is on the verge of homelessness. He was seriously affected by his wartime experience, having developed PTSD and other psychological issues, making it difficult for him to remain stable enough to hold down a job. His severe mood swings have also left him without his base of support – his family – specifically his now-ex-wife, Cassandra (Olivia Washington), and their young daughter, Kiah (London Covington), whom he positively adores. In many ways, these circumstances have left him a broken man, and now, he believes, authorities have conspired to break him even more, conditions callously thrust upon someone whom others have freely and repeatedly said would never hurt a fly.

Why does Easley believe the government has wrongfully taken his money? It’s because the funds were transferred and applied to an outstanding education loan debt, a practice allowed by law. According to Easley’s VA case worker (Miriam Silverman), whenever anyone owes money on such debts, repayment of the loan can be secured by any means available, including everything from wage garnishment to the seizing of benefit checks, like the veteran’s disability payments. The case worker feebly tries to assuage Easley’s disappointment by informing him that the transfer of these funds settles his outstanding debt obligation, but that’s small comfort, since it still leaves him with no money to support himself. She recommends that he try applying for VA benefits specifically aimed at staving off homelessness, but, when he sees the endless line of applicants awaiting assistance – one long enough to stretch across the expanse of downtown Atlanta – he loses it and is forcibly escorted from the VA office.

With seemingly nothing left to lose, Easley decides to take action. In an effort to make his case known and his voice heard, he walks into a suburban branch of a Wells Fargo Bank armed with what he says is a homemade bomb, threatening to blow up the facility if his demands aren’t met.

Quite surprisingly, however, in many ways, this isn’t what one would typically think of as a holdup. To begin with, he lets all of the bank customers and all but two of its employees leave peacefully. And, as for the two “hostages” he takes – bank branch manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) and teller Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) – he tells them that they won’t be harmed, that they’ll be released safely, even if he decides to detonate the device. He treats them respectfully and politely, never seriously threatening them and giving them a surprising degree of freedom to move about the building while in his “custody.” His politeness even extends to taking a message during an incoming customer phone call. But, perhaps most striking, he makes no demands for any of the bank’s money; he insists that any funds meant to come his way must originate with those whom he believes stole it in the first place – the VA.

Still, despite the unconventional circumstances in place here, the situation is nevertheless quite tense, conditions made worse by the foot-dragging of authorities in getting a negotiator in place to speak with Easley. It eventually prompts him to contact a local television station to try and get his story on the air. He calls WSB TV producer Lisa Larson (Connie Britton), telling her his story in hopes that the public will hear it. But Larson is torn about how far and wide to go with this conversation; she seeks a balance in covering a legitimate news story while not unduly interfering with authorities attempting to defuse the standoff.

With the tension ramping up, an array of police units from surrounding areas (including carefully positioned snipers) and throngs of news media conducting live remotes (including Atlanta-based CNN) descend on the area surrounding the bank. Recently appointed Police Chief Jack Quail (Robb Derringer) also arrives on the scene to confer with SWAT team coordinators like Major Riddick (Jeffrey Donovan) about the unfolding of operations. But the one who really stands to make a meaningful difference is negotiator Eli Bernard (Michael Kenneth Williams), an experienced mediator whose personal background mirrors Easley’s, theoretically making him the ideal candidate to speak with the perpetrator. And, to his credit, he’s able to cut through much of the bureaucratic red tape to get the negotiation process moving.

As Bernard holds talks with Easley, he endeavors to gain his trust, drawing parallels between what they have in common. He tries to smooth over matters as much as possible to bring about a peaceful conclusion to the standoff. He contacts Easley’s family to try to bring them into the resolution process. And he offers Easley modest incentives to draw down the tension. Meanwhile, the hostages attempt to provide solutions of their own. Like Bernard, they sympathize with Easley’s situation and sincerely want to make things right quickly and easily to prevent the situation from blowing up out of control.

But others in charge don’t appear to share the reasoned, compassionate approach employed by Bernard and the bank employees. Instead, they’re looking to bring the situation to a close in short order, without notifying the others working toward negotiating a peaceful solution. Can a moderated outcome result? Or will everyone’s worst fears be realized?

What are we to do when we feel we have nothing to lose, especially when it comes to making our stories known and our voices heard? That’s a tricky question, to be sure. The frustration that prompts such situations often causes us to act impulsively and from a standpoint of desperation. Superficially speaking, one might easily say that’s what drove the beliefs and motivations behind Easley’s actions (though, since no one was ever able to definitively get inside his consciousness, no one can say for sure). What unfolded in suburban Atlanta in July 2017 reflected what he believed at the time, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of these intangible resources, for better or worse. It’s unlikely that Easley had ever heard of this school of thought, but his beliefs and actions nevertheless materialized what happened at the bank on that fateful summer day.

When we hold onto such impulsive and desperate beliefs, we walk a treacherous path, regardless of how justified we may feel about those emotions. And, based on what led up to the event, Easley certainly had good reason to feel that he had been jerked around by an uncaring system. The problem in that, however, is that such thinking can lead to the kind of fanatical behavior that occurred at the bank. When we become so irrationally focused on achieving an objective like getting heard under conditions where everyone seemingly turns a deaf ear, the outcome can be devastating – and tragic.

It’s not that Easley didn’t take steps to ameliorate his circumstances in advance of this incident, either. He sought assistance through supposedly proper channels. He struggled to preserve his composure. And he pleaded his case honestly and thoughtfully. Indeed, he did everything that was expected of him, and yet he still felt (and, arguably, rightly so) that those who were supposed to be looking after his welfare had seriously let him down. Indeed, how would you feel under such conditions?

Understandable as those feelings might be, however, they can lead to clouding one’s judgment, prompting irrational beliefs that spawn irrational acts. Why, for example, did Easley seek to hold up a bank to get his voice heard, especially one that had no particular nexus to his circumstances other than being the institution into which his disability checks were deposited? What did he hope to gain by that? Regrettably, this reflects what can happen when we become so focused on the outcome that we lose sight of the consequences associated with it, a practice known as un-conscious creation or creation by default, one that often yields results like those that unfolded in this story.

This is by no means intended to fault what Easley did. His situation, unfortunately, mirrored that experienced by many veterans upon returning home from war and trying to reintegrate into mainstream society, a process often fraught with myriad difficult adjustments. And that’s important to recognize, given that the responsibility for what transpired involved not only what Easley did, but also the actions taken by those who prompted him to do what he did – the caretakers of a system so focused on achieving what they wanted that they, too, lost sight of the consequences that accompanied their actions. They believed so fervently in attaining their objectives that they fell prey to their own brand of un-conscious creation, including everyone from those managing Easley’s benefits to those overseeing his loan repayment obligations to those handling the standoff as it unfolded. Indeed, considering the responsibility at stake here, there’s plenty of accountability to go around, particularly in terms of how events ultimately played out.

This points out the perils of beliefs associated with inflexibility. There can be seriously inherent dangers associated with such thinking, as evidenced here. It’s another permutation of un-conscious creation gone awry, a scenario in which little good can come out of what happens.

But was nothing learned from this incident? While the outcome certainly had its tragic elements, one could argue that Easley brought his own brand of heroism to this situation by making the plight of veterans more widely known, by exposing the uncaring, bureaucratic nightmares that they often face in receiving the benefits to which they’re rightfully entitled – and promised. They served when called upon, and they should be treated in kind when their service is done, and Easley pled their case through his actions, heartbreaking though they may have been.

While many may disagree with what Easley did – and with what the system did to him – there was a certain quality of destiny associated with his standoff. As becomes apparent in the film, there’s a fateful quality to what he did, something he seemed to sense as events unfolded, almost as if he was reconciled to what was about to occur. But, before the conclusion was reached, he managed to get the word out about what happened to him and his fellow veterans. It’s sad that it took something so drastic to make these matters known. We can only hope that his sacrifice was not made in vain – and that others won’t have to endure what he went through. 

Justice ignored is indeed justice denied. What’s more, it’s an open invitation to things easily getting out of hand as the tension behind such situations is dialed up to an exaggerated level. That’s precisely what happens in director Abi Damaris Corbin’s second feature outing, an offering reminiscent of the film classic “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975). This scrupulously faithful retelling of the story of Brian Brown-Easley is a riveting, albeit disturbing, watch from start to finish, casting a long shadow of shame on those who lack the decency and humanity to care for those who made the effort to care for us. The picture’s stellar ensemble cast, which captured the 2022 Sundance Film Festival acting award in this category, is superb across the board, featuring some of this year’s best performances, including the best portrayal ever turned in by Boyega (who has come a long way from his “Star Wars” outings) and an excellent performance by the late Michael Kenneth Williams in one of his final roles. This Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize nominee is by no means an easy film to screen, but it’s one that anyone interested in seeing justice served should watch – and take action about to see that it’s not denied again. The film originally played on the festival circuit and is now available theatrically.

Neglect is rarely, if ever, acceptable, especially when an individual’s welfare is at stake. And those who cite rules and regulations in a flimsy attempt to absolve themselves are merely falling back on excuses to cover their backsides. As Brian Brown-Easley’s experience illustrates, such failings carry dire consequences, not only individually, but collectively as well. If there’s any good to come out of situations like this, fortunately, they expose the shortcomings of a broken system in serious need of reform, one urgently requiring strong infusions of compassion, understanding and remediation. Such is the bare minimum we should take away from this story in hopes that nothing like it ever happens again.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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