HomeExplainersIs 'Breaking' Based On A True Story? Who Was Brian Brown-Easley?

Is ‘Breaking’ Based On A True Story? Who Was Brian Brown-Easley?

“Breaking” is an alternate take on the heist genre that throws light into the mind of the robber. The plot isn’t about a heist or a robbery. In fact, the robber isn’t even a robber. Brian Brown-Easley is a former marine who is now struggling to get by in life. His mental trauma has taken a toll on him, and he has come to the bank so that people can hear him out. But there’s much more to Brian than we think we know. 

Spoilers Ahead


The Real Incident

On the morning of July 7, 2017, 33-year-old war veteran Brian Brown-Easley entered the Wells Fargo bank branch on Windy Hill Road in Marietta, Georgia, claiming that he had C-4 explosives in his backpack. He let most of the employees and customers go, keeping only two women hostages, one of them being the branch manager. Brian then started calling WSB-TV, a local news station, and the police authorities to let them know what he was doing and what was happening. He had been trying again and again but had been denied the money he was supposed to receive from the Veterans Affairs (VA) department and had even faced humiliation for it. He wanted himself to be heard by everyone. The ordeal went on for approximately 3 hours, and at around 12:15 pm, a shot was heard on Windy Hill Road. Brian Brown-Easley was dead. Nothing was found inside his backpack.

“Breaking” shows what happened inside the bank from the moment Brian entered it to his death. The film pays special attention to his emotional side and his mental trauma, stressing on his PTSD and paranoia. In this way, we get a picture of who Brian really was and what made him take such a drastic step.


Brian’s Past

Former Marine Corps Brian Brown-Easley was dishonorably discharged in 2005 after two tours in Kuwait and Iraq as a supply clerk. After returning home to his mother in Jefferson, Georgia, Brian felt the symptoms of mental illness and backaches. These symptoms worsened after his marriage to Jessica and the birth of his daughter Jayla. Because of these ailments, Brian would take off and vanish for days, staying at hotel rooms, relatives’ spare rooms, and even the VA mental hospitals and non-profit housing establishments. There were times when he used to sleep in his car. In the summer of 2017, things were at their worst when he stopped receiving his monthly VA disability checks. Rent thus fell due, which meant that he would be left without a shelter and would have to live on the streets. Throughout the first week of July 2017, he tried to contact the Veterans Crisis Line, but he was hung up. On July 3, three days before he was to arrive at the bank, he was humiliated by the staffers at VA’s Regional Benefits Office in Atlanta. He was owed $892.


Emotions, facts, and Fiction

“Breaking” delves into the mental and emotional pain of Brian Brown-Easley. Like many other war veterans, Brian faces trouble readjusting to civilian life. He suffered from PTSD, as well as schizophrenia, and paranoia. The film shows these symptoms during his call with the WSB-TV reporter, where he mentions how his half-brother Calvin was part of a secret cult that had tried to kidnap him four times. He also tells her that he believes that he is being followed and that “they” have all his information. The sense of purpose that was there when he was a soldier was nowhere to be seen now, and it is tough to accept that Brian was once serving his country in some faraway land. Brian didn’t have many friends and grew up an introvert before enlisting in the army. His service brought him new and much-needed friends. However, after his discharge, he lost contact with them, and it has been that way ever since.

It is not like he was in total disarray after his discharge from the army. He had enrolled in computer classes. He had done various jobs after his discharge and had even bought his daughter Jayla a phone with which she could communicate with him. Reports say that he had told the reporter that he had a warehouse job, and he also went to film school for a while. Throughout the film, Brian’s behavior is depicted accurately based on facts. He was well-behaved and respectful of his two hostages. He ended his sentences with words like “thank you” and “please,” ensuring that both women were not scared of him. He even received calls from customers and told them to call later as there was an emergency at the bank. Boyega’s authentic portrayal of Brian was due to the fact that the creators had reached out to Brian’s ex-wife and their daughter. Michael K. Williams’ character Eli Bernard is inspired by real-life lead negotiator Sgt. Andre Bates. An article in the Los Angeles Times stated that Jessica (Brian’s ex-wife) told John Boyega (the actor who played Brian Brown-Easley) during a zoom call in January 2022 that “Not only did I love the movie, but you also look like my husband.”

As for $892, facts are divided. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Brian Brown-Easley owed them $1163. His $892 was recovered as recouped money after he, a veteran, had failed to attend his classes. His balance, thus, was $271. He apparently promised the VA that he would clear his balance but never returned until he did so at the Wells Fargo bank. This just proves that rather than humiliating him, if only the VA had given him some more time and had come to an understanding as they should, Brian wouldn’t have made up his mind to go to the bank.

What’s tragic is the fact that Brian’s death was not called for. Officer Dennis Ponte had radioed in. SWAT Commander Lt. Benjamin Cohen said that he had a clear shot at Brian, who was at a distance of approximately 66 yards. But he had received a clear order: “Not at this time.” Ponte could hear about the hostage’s release on the radio, but he couldn’t see anything happening towards that effect or any hostage being released by Brian. Then, he made his decision unilaterally. At around 12:15 pm, Brian Brown-Easley was shot in the head by a Sierra MatchKing.338 250 bullet from Ponte’s $5000 Lapua.338 semi-automatic sniper rifle. But nobody knew this fact, and it remained a mystery for many months. While Chief of Police Mike Register wrongfully stated to the media that during the extraction process, they had contacted the suspect but according to them, the subject was already dead. But as we know now, there wasn’t any confrontation. It was only in early 2018 that all the information was made public after the request for an open record. Ponte offered no reasonable justification for his actions. Had he not fired the shot, there was a clear possibility that Brian would end up releasing both hostages as well as remain alive himself. The jury declared Dennis’ Ponte’s actions legal. However, his action may be lawful, but we all know it wasn’t necessary. Usually, a gunshot is instantaneously followed by a reaction from a tactical unit. In this case, it took 9 seconds for the unit to begin the movement. The armored vehicle moved towards the bank entrance. The SWAT team put the hostages inside the vehicle, which then returned to a safe spot. Then a remote-operated robot was sent in to recover Brian’s backpack. It was recovered, but there was no bomb. All that they found was a Bible, a small knife, and some other things. Brian never even took out the knife. They also recovered a cross pendant and an electronic device from Brian’s body. One of the hostages had thought that it was a bomb switch, but the electronic device was used to locate audio devices. It could have been just another thing for Brian to use during his moments of caution, an unfortunate result of delusion.

“Breaking” doesn’t delve into what happened in the aftermath of Brian’s death. It only shows the proceedings inside the bank, showcasing Brian’s character, played brilliantly by John Boyega. The mental turmoil, the pain, the rage, the inability to express; Boyega brings all this to the screen effectively, jumping back and forth among emotions. We also have to hand it to writers Abi Damaris Corbin Kwame Kwei-Armah for keeping the character balanced. 


In Memoriam

While many will sympathize with Brian Brown-Easley for his trauma and pain, some might blame him. Despite having a mental illness, it was Brian’s choice alone to enter the back, declare that he had a bomb on him, and hold two women hostages. But what we need to take away from the event is how war veterans are treated, or rather mistreated. Moreover, Brian’s behavior is proof of the extent to which mental illness can cause harm and stresses the importance of addressing issues like PTSD, schizophrenia, and paranoia. Such problems affect not only the person who has them but also the people around. Brian cared for his daughter, spoke to her every day, and even promised to buy her a dog (fact). He enrolled in computer classes to get a job and support his family. But the world didn’t hear him. And he just wanted to be heard.


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Shubhabrata Dutta
Shubhabrata Dutta
Shubhabrata’s greatest regret is the fact that he won’t be able to watch every movie and show ever made. And when he isn’t watching a movie or a show, he is busy thinking about them and how they are made; all while taking care of his hobbies. These include the usual suspects i.e. songs, long walks, books and PC games.

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