26 February 2007 | Buddy-51
focused spy drama
On February 18, 2001, Robert Hanssen, a 56-year old FBI agent, was arrested, by the very agency he worked for, for selling secrets to the Russians. He was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to 15 charges of espionage. This is widely considered to be the worst case of treason in the history of American intelligence.
"Breach" looks at the story through the eyes of Eric O'Neill, the young, up-and-coming junior agent assigned by investigators in the bureau to spy on Hanssen. In the position of personal assistant to Hanssen, O'Neill works to uncover evidence against his boss that will help to strengthen the legal case gradually being built against him.
"Breach" is a fairly solid political thriller, less concerned with big action scenes than with examining the relationship between these two very different men set in unwitting opposition to one another. Hanssen himself is a mass of immense hypocrisies and contradictions. A devout Catholic, he attends Mass religiously, recites the rosary everyday, and looks with disdain upon homosexuals, women who wear pants and anybody seemingly to the left politically of Rush Limbaugh and Ronald Reagan. Yet, despite his outward display of moral rectitude, Hanssen secretly distributes porn videos of his wife (she is unaware of their existence) and betrays his country by turning over classified information to the enemy. O'Neill finds himself simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the man, who manages to be both prig and libertine at one and the same time. O'Neill knows that what Hanssen is doing is terribly wrong, yet he can't help falling under the spell of a man he knows that, under other circumstances, he might well come to value as a friend and a mentor.
Ryan Philippe is subtle and brooding as the taciturn O'Neill, reluctant to condemn the man he's been sent to bring down until all the facts are in. It's true that his performance is a bit of a Johnny-one-note at times, but since the function of the character is that of observer rather than catalyst, Philippe's self-effacing underplaying seems the right editorial choice here. Plus, it clears the deck for Chris Cooper to step to the forefront with his finely-tuned interpretation of Hanssen that brings real dimensionality and depth to the film. He turns Hanssen into a richly complex figure, a man who demands strict adherence to form yet who systematically violates that very rule at the deepest core of his own being. A stickler for protocol and standards and unforgiving of those who fall short of them, Hanssen somehow fails to see his own glaring weaknesses while managing to condemn others for theirs. Through his perceptive performance, Cooper makes it possible for us to see this walking paradox in all his complexity and humanity.
The movie itself, written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Billy Ray, and directed by Ray, is a trifle plodding at times and doesn't feel as vital as perhaps it should given the seriousness of the issues it is addressing, but, for the most part, we welcome its unfrenetic approach to the subject. It doesn't try to gin up the melodrama or unravel its human enigma - rather it presents him as truthfully and impartially as possible, then leaves it up to the viewer to render the final judgment.