With the steady direction of Billy Ray, who co-wrote the screenplay for Flightplan and wrote and directed the journalism drama Shattered Glass, Breach stands as a good, but not great, addition to the spy drama canon. It manages to engage without resorting to over-the-top pyrotechnics and action.
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PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language
Somewhat ironically, Breach was written by a couple of the guys who produced the loony comedy Super Troopers.
In February 2001 Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of Robert Hanssen, a turncoat and the most damaging spy in U.S. history. Responsible for events that lead to the loss of at least three lives, Hanssen cost the U.S. a staggering sum in financial damages. The extent of his impact remains classified information.
Ashcroft’s real-life press conference starts the movie Breach, which then goes back in time to tell the tale of the events that lead to Hanssen’s capture.
Hanssen was a man of deep contrasts. A devout Catholic and family man, he also had a penchant for rough sex and Catherine Zeta Jones movies. A dyed-in-the-wool patriot who proclaims an FBI agent is never off duty, he also spied for the Russians for more than 15 years.
As portrayed by the perpetually dour Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity), Hanssen is not a particularly likeable character. At best, he’s a domineering IT geek who demands his new assistant, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe, Crash), call him either “Sir” or “Boss.”
Eric, a hot-to-trot agent-in-the-making assigned to collect evidence against Hanssen, chooses the latter.
From Russia with Love
The tension in Breach never reaches the boiling point, instead it settles for a steady simmer. It’s hard, after all, to heat up the room when a film starts by announcing its conclusion.
Percolation reaches its peak in a sequence involving Eric trying to squeeze more time from Hanssen after an off-site meeting is cut drastically short. Back at the ranch, the FBI has totally dismantled Hanssen’s car in search of evidence (the small arsenal in the trunk was hard to miss). It goes without saying their early return would blow the cover on the internal investigation.
But the lack of overcooked drama and half-baked action found in the typical Hollywood spy movie actually works to this film’s advantage.
The interest level remains steady throughout thanks to the very fine performances by Phillippe and Caroline Dhavernas (Hollywoodland) as Juliana, his wife. Eric O’Neill is conflicted by the surface-level goodness that Hanssen uses to hide his inner demons and by the toll his top secret mission is taking on his marriage.
Laura Linney (Kinsey) as Kate Burroughs, the agent who heads the Hanssen investigation, matches Cooper’s cantankerousness blow for blow. She’s single; she doesn’t even have a cat and she lives off TV dinners. Nonetheless, it’s an agent’s life for her.
As Cooper plays him, Hanssen has a lot more going on beneath the surface than he ever lets on. In fact, Breach falls short of being classified as a bona fide character study because its somewhat disappointing conclusion brushes off the “why” of it all.
“The ‘why’ doesn’t mean a thing,” Hanssen says before psychoanalyzing himself and his ilk a la the psychiatrist in the tacked-on closing scenes of Psycho. Hanssen goes on to suggest it was all part of the excitement of being the one chased and the thrill of not getting caught.
Fine, but that’s a fairly lackluster analysis, considering the stark contrasts embodied within Hanssen.