by RISHI AGRAWAL
Breach is a fascinating character portrait of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), an FBI agent who was selling secrets to the Soviets who was finally captured in 2001. It is told from the perspective of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who recently came to the FBI and was asked to spy on Hanssen to capture the elusive proof of his duplicity. Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) directs this film which is very much a real-life thriller: there are no car chases or explosions or bloody confrontations. The film remains firmly grounded in reality, which ends up being both the film’s strength and its weakness.
On one hand, an intelligent, discerning audience has to appreciate that the film is very much based on actual events. The stakes in the movie is that Hanssen needs to be captured with incontrovertible evidence of his guilt. If his guilt is in question, then he would go free and there would be no way to debrief him and learn of the secrets that he revealed and the damage that he caused. Furthermore, if Hanssen suspected that the FBI was on to him, he could easily go underground and we would never get the evidence. It is not as if Hanssen was liable to go on a killing spree or blow up a stadium if he wasn’t captured. The plot is infused with a high level of subtlety.
On the other hand, as much as people throw around the cliché that the truth is stranger than fiction, it does nothing to make the statement any more accurate. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that real life is not necessarily that interesting. When Ray tries to punch up the story with sensational moments, they come across as hokey. For example, after Hanssen has been captured, O’Neill runs into Hanssen, in custody, in an elevator. This moment, no doubt meant to be profound, just made me question the veracity of that scene, which is a huge detriment in a movie that should pride itself on its accuracy. (On a side note, this is not really a spoiler, as we learn in the first scene that Hanssen has been captured. The rest of the movie is told in flashback.)
Still, Hanssen is a fascinating character that is really infused with subtext by Cooper’s brilliant performance. Hanssen is a proselytizing Catholic who enjoys strippers and has a minor obsession with Catherine Zeta-Jones. He makes videotapes of him and his wife having sex to share with a friend of his. Meanwhile, he is a loving grandfather who hates treachery in all its forms and attends mass every day. Cooper’s portrayal is really terrifying because we simply cannot penetrate this character and we never know what he is capable of. In this way, the structure, telling the story from O’Neill’s point of view, really works. The same technique worked very well in another recent film, The Last King of Scotland. A villain’s cold stare is much more chilling when we have no idea what he is thinking.
Breach, is a character portrait that has to overcome some fairly major flaws: a thin plot and a visually bland look. Fortunately, it is helped by great performances by Cooper, Phillippe and Laura Linney, who plays a senior FBI agent who acts as O’Neill’s handler. This may not be the best spy thriller you’ll ever see, but this is a film about real life spies and not some gadget-toting, gun-wielding acrobats.