Breach, Mar. 07


Ironically, Breach is the stuff that good fiction is made of. But this film is no imaginary tale. It’s based on several weeks leading to the arrest of real-life FBI agent Robert Hanssen for selling 20 years of U.S. secrets to Russia. Breach is not an action spy flick but a thoughtful, intense drama that portraits the disturbing personality of a double agent and the young agent-wannabe who helped the FBI catch Hanssen in the act of treason.

Portrayed by Chris Cooper with all of the requisite nuance, the highly intelligent Hanssen is a complex character. A 25-year FBI veteran and an expert on Russian intelligence, he sports a controlling, eerie demeanor. He’s fanatic about purity and family, evangelical about church and prayer, and insists on being addressed as “Sir.” But behind the devout, old-fashioned veneer, Hanssen is a man of countless secrets—biggest of all, a traitor.

Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) lives up to the role of the surveillance specialist who is suddenly leading a double life in the job from hell. Assigned under false pretense to work for Hanssen, O’Neill must report daily on Hanssen’s activities to his superior—played with perfect female machismo by Laura Linney. Under Hanssen’s keen scrutiny, O’Neill has to play his cards exactly right to monitor his boss’s life without arousing mistrust. Or Hanssen will never be caught.

In 2002, the year following his arrest, Hanssen inspired a TV movie (I missed it, too). Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story explored his past, his frustrations with money, and his lack of upward mobility in the Bureau that prompted his turncoat activities. In Breach, director/ screenwriter Billy Ray (Flightplan, Shattered Glass) narrows the time focus to a few short weeks. And favoring quiet understatement to reveal the peculiar Hanssen persona, he delivers a tense drama riding on all those emotions that make us sweat and squirm. The result is compelling nonfiction entertainment.

So why is this film not drawing the crowds? One possibility is that this slice of recent history may not have shaken the headlines enough to make the movie-going public remember. Another possibility is a slight case of box-office miscast. Chris Cooper is a powerful supporting actor who will long be remembered for his subordinate roles in American Beauty, Adaptation, and Capote. But in what may be his most leading role to date, he needed a bigger name than Phillippe to share the marquis.

But bottom line: Breach is a film worth seeing and an unusual education about the man who pulled off the greatest security breach in U.S. history. Check it out. B+