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Breach (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 16 February 2007
Career FBI agent Robert Hanssen has been described as the most destructive traitor in U.S. history—at least he was behind the most serious breach of U.S. security. He fed sensitive information to contacts behind the Iron Curtain—when there was an Iron Curtain—for at least 15 years, and is now serving a life term in prison solitary.

“Breach” is a powerful, gripping movie that expertly takes us into the final very cautious investigation into how Hanssen (intensely played by Chris Cooper) managed this while still working as an FBI agent. After a brief newsclip of John Ashcroft announcing Hanssen’s arrest, the remainder of the movie tells the story of how budding agent Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe) was the ultimate link in the chain of evidence.

This really is the Kind of Movie They Don’t Make Any More—that is, if the “they” are big studios. This feels like an especially well-produced independent film (director Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass” was precisely that), and is cast like one, too, with especially good actors who often don’t get roles this good filling the cast right down to the bottom: Laura Linney, Gary Cole (who seems to be able to do anything), Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan and Bruce Davison. But as it’s from Universal, this is unquestionably a big studio movie. It also seems to be reasonably factual.

O’Neill is a budding agent (what are FBI employees before they’re agents?) who’s first seen on a routine stakeout. But he’s ambitious, and when approached by FBI higher-up Kate Burroughs (Linney) to secretly investigate Hanssen, after a moment of reluctance, he’s eager to do it in hopes of career advancement. He’s told that Hanssen is a “sexual deviant” (though we see very, very little of this) and a security risk.

Hanssen has just been returned from a long-time position in Europe, as the head of an analytical surveillance of Russia, and put in charge of “information assurance.” To his annoyance, he’s given a small, windowless office and wet-behind-the-ears O’Neill as his “clerk” (as Hanssen contemptuously describes him).

Hanssen is initially cold and peremptory with O’Neill; he’s a man who’s own career hasn’t moved ahead as he hoped, and he’s also been around long enough to be somewhat bitter and cynical about the entire espionage business. Hanssen has a weary, cynical air and a sharp tongue.

One of the first things he says to O’Neill is “my lord, you’re as dumb as a bag of hammers, aren’t you?”
But things gradually improve. Hanssen loosens up a little when he learns that, like himself, O’Neill is a Catholic, though not as devout as Hanssen would like. Hanssen himself goes to church every day and, literally, twice on Sundays. Hanssen tells O’Neill that Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan), Hanssen’s wife, converted him from being “not much of a Lutheran.” And he tells O’Neill that the Soviets were smarter and more devious than the U.S., but failed because of their “godless” atheism.

O’Neill has some problems at home; his wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), is foreign-born (but has no accent), and not sure she likes the idea of her husband having such an involving job—which he can tell her nothing about. Hanssen’s wife Bonnie has long since made her peace with her husband’s job and its demands, and Hanssen’s family, kids and grandkids, seems closely knit. (In reality, Mrs. Hanssen did learn that her husband was a counterspy well before he was arrested, but there’s no hint of that in the movie.)

“Breach” closely follows O’Neill’s surveillance, and suspense is very effectively generated in several scenes in which Hanssen comes close to catching O’Neill at his job of spying on his boss. (Which is what Hanssen insists he be called.) This is not at all an action movie; I don’t think anyone even runs, there are no car chases, and the only time guns are fired—except once, near the end—it’s on a firing range. And yet the movie is often as engrossing as the liveliest James Bond adventure, cerebral excitement at its best.

Though filmed mostly on interior sets, “Breach” is a very handsome movie, shot by top cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. The story takes place in a two-month winter period, and has an appropriately clammy feel much of the time. The principal weakness is a morose score by Mychael Danna, the sort of music that’s intended to assure the audience that what we have here is very serious, even grim, stuff. There’s a self-important air to the score that’s absent from the film otherwise. The score should have been more stringent, emphasizing the frequent tension.

Chris Cooper is one of the best character actors working today, and except for Jack Nicholson, character actors rarely get leading roles. But Cooper’s sincere performances have graced a long line of good movies: “Lone Star,” “The Horse Whisperer,” “American Beauty,” “The Bourne Identity” (in a Hanssen-like role), “Seabiscuit,” “Capote,” “Syriana” and others. His Hanssen is a very complicated man; we don’t begin to see all his facets. He is bitter and cynical, but he’s almost shy in his overtures of friendship to O’Neill. He’s a very devout Catholic and tries to insist that O’Neill be one as well. He’s a devoted family man, but secretly videotapes his sexual relations with his wife—and he sends these to his contacts on the other side along with military and governmental secrets.

Sometimes, he talks with hatred and disgust about other traitors, especially Aldrich Ames, a CIA agent working for the Soviets who was arrested in 1994, eight years prior to Hanssen. But Hanssen is quite aware of what he’s doing—though the script by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and director Billy Ray never really deals with his motives. There’s a suggestion that he became so disgusted with America’s lousy record in espionage that he did what he did to call attention to this failing—but his actions were almost certainly responsible for at least three deaths. And there’s a hint that he did it for the money, though he states with profound disgust that that’s why Ames betrayed his country. Hanssen has to be a very complicated man, and the movie and Cooper are wise in not trying to settle for a simple explanation. This is a drama, not a melodrama.

Ryan Philippe is equally good as O’Neill, who was an advisor on the film (unusually for this kind of thing, it’s not based on a book). He’s a serious actor, and holds his own against the more experienced Cooper. So do supporting players; it’s always a pleasure to see Haysbert, Davison and Cole.

Laura Linney makes Burroughs as complex and fascinating as Hanssen; she knows she’s asking O’Neill to do something difficult, but the movie doesn’t play obvious manipulative games with this aspect of the story. O’Neill grows to almost but not quite like Hanssen, almost but not quite trust him—and almost but not quite like and trust Burroughs, too, which she’s quite aware of, and accepts.

I’m sorry that “Breach” is being released in the “movie doldrums” of February, and hope that when Oscars are talked about at the end of the year, someone remembers director Billy Ray and actor Chris Cooper. This is a solid, intelligent movie, suspenseful, engrossing and entertaining.

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