| February 18, 2007

Breach, the latest film from director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), is all about the personal cost of devotion–to family, God, and your country. Ray works this idea through the spy versus spy interplay of two FBI agents: an embittered veteran suspected by the Bureau of spying for the Russians and the young, idealistic Investigative Specialist assigned to work for, and spy on, him. Though more a character drama than anything else, Breach contains dashes of thriller intrigue that spike the proceedings and lend an urgency to the game of trust the two FBI men are involved in, as they struggle with their sense of devotion in their lives and careers.
Breach is based on the true account of infamous FBI mole Robert Hanssen, who was arrested in early 2001 and convicted of spying for the Russians over a fifteen-year period. Hanssen’s treason is considered the worst security breach in the history of American intelligence. One of the key members of the investigative team that brought Hanssen down was Eric O’Neill, a young Investigative Specialist with hopes of becoming an agent. Assigned to Hanssen as an aide, O’Neill was asked to monitor Hanssen’s Internet activity, but soon pieced together that something much bigger was at stake. O’Neill was brought into the case and eventually collected the evidence that cinched Hanssen’s conviction. It’s this game of cat and mouse–between Hanssen and O’Neill, in the confines of their working relationship–that’s featured in the movie.
Chris Cooper stars as Robert Hanssen. He imbues the role with a steely eyed, smoldering sense of indignation and cynical egotism. It’s pure Cooper, working at his best. There’s something bruised but biting in his portrayal of Hanssen that runs like an electric current waiting to spark through the first two-thirds of Breach. When it finally does, it’s riveting to watch. Cooper plumbs the many depths of Hanssen’s internal conflicts (devout Catholic and family man versus sexual deviant, and patriot versus traitor, among others) and lends them a sense of guarded, warped humanity. This warped humanity elevates Cooper’s performance and turns Breach into a chilling character study of a dangerous man.
Opposite Cooper is Ryan Phillippe, who plays Investigative Specialist Eric O’Neill. Where Hanssen is cynical and embittered, O’Neill is idealistic and eager. Where Hanssen is secure in his devotion to God, his family and to his distrust of the Bureau and its politics, O’Neill isn’t. He questions the effects of everything–his inability to tell his wife what he’s doing, the worth of the faith in God Hanssen so cherishes, mindless devotion to the Bureau–on his personal life. Phillippe plays O’Neill close to the vest through the first half of the film and doesn’t really cut loose until his character becomes aware of the true nature of the investigation in which he’s involved. Phillippe fares better in the more suspenseful moments later in the film. He struggles to keep up with Cooper at times but acquits himself reasonably well in the end.
Shot in cool, blue hues and stridently realistic in its depiction of the FBI at the turn of the 21st century, Breach also features a plethora of well-played supporting roles and cameos. Most notable among these are Laura Linney as O’Neill’s superior and handler during the investigation, Gary Cole as a serpentine foil to Cooper’s Hanssen in the bureaucracy of the FBI and Bruce Davison as O’Neill’s father in a quiet, noble one scene turn that really frames the struggle O’Neill has with his mission.
Breach is an interesting spy thriller. It features a quiet, pervasive tension and intense character interplay, rather than cosmopolitan intrigue and action. Breach frames an average, recognizable terror. It’s a middle American terror, that of a mid-level bureaucrat with a warped sense of devotion and a hunger for self-importance that makes him the worst kind of monster–a normal looking one. Overall, the movie eschews sensationalism in its telling of the Hanssen story for a deeper sense of character and reality; by doing so, it exposes the intimate side of its subject and one of the darker moments in modern American history.

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