Breaking tells a true story that's both exciting and heartbreaking. Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) is a Marine veteran. Life has not gotten easier since his two tours of duty ended. He's broke, estranged from wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington), and trying desperately to be a present father to his little girl. What pushes him to the edge is being screwed over by Veterans Affairs. They owe him a disability check, and they're dragging their feet in giving it to him. The cash wouldn't solve all his problems, although it would certainly help. More than that, he wants to send a message that they shouldn't treat vets so callously.

To drive the point home, Brian walks into a local Wells Fargo bank, where he hands a note to teller Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) saying he has a bomb and will blow the place up if he doesn't get his money. Because he's not a bad guy, he lets the customers go free. Only Rosa and bank manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) remain inside. Police negotiator Eli Bernard (Michael Kenneth Williams) establishes phone contact with Brian, in an effort to resolve the problem. When the money still isn't transferred, Brian's emotional state becomes more volatile, causing Rosa and Estel to fear for their lives, and putting pressure on Eli to prevent a catastrophe.

There are two levels on which Breaking operates. One is as a hostage drama. Director Abi Demaris Corbin keeps the tension building by focusing on the emotions of the characters. Although Rosa and Estel empathize with Brian's plight, they also recognize that he's coming apart at the seams, so they fear he'll do something even more drastic than what he's already done. And the increasing frustration does indeed cause Brian to find his grip on self-control loosening. Great suspense is wrung from watching these people inside a pressure cooker, while Eli is outside attempting to find a way to de-escalate the situation.

On the other level, the story is a powerful statement about how Veterans Affairs – the organization that is supposed to take care of our vets – sometimes allows them to fall through the cracks. Brian's point in demanding his payment is that veterans sacrifice so much and ask for so little in return. Boyega stunningly captures the moral fight this character wages. At one point, Estel offers to simply transfer the cash into Brian's account, letting the bank absorb the loss. He rejects that, because this is about principle. It's a moment that feels real, thanks to the vivid, authentic performance the actor gives. The story conveys a forceful message about the need for VA to go the extra mile for the men and women who served our country. They deserve it, especially when struggling.

Strong work from the entire cast makes Breaking the kind of picture that commands your attention from start to finish. If you know the story of the real Brian Brown-Easley, you know it took a very unexpected turn. The film stays true to that. How it's staged catches you off-guard, which is precisely the point. A lot of movies would have tried to alter what happened in order to make it fit more comfortably into a traditional formula. Sticking with the facts of the case is by far the better option, as it serves to underline the themes running throughout.

I respect Breaking for not chickening out. Boyega's fiery performance gives the film a jittery edge that allows Brian Brown-Easley's ordeal to feel urgent and impassioned. You remain in a state of tension for 103 minutes, then leave thinking deeply about the tragedy of a system that's capable of letting down the very people who put their lives on the line for all of us.

out of four

Breaking is rated PG-13 for some violent content, and strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.