‘Breach’ ***** Movie Review 031907

The Work = *****
I want to be upfront; ‘Breach’ is a slow moving drama with not a single action sequence present in the film. ‘Breach’ is also a gripping feature film, based on real events that occurred predominately in early 2001. I am not going to give a spoiler warning because the opening of ‘Breach’ tells what ultimately happens to its central character. This is important to note because knowing the outcome of the film won’t change your enjoyment of it. This one is highly recommended.

‘Breach’ is almost entirely a two man show focusing on FBI special surveillance operative Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillipe) and famed FBI Operative Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Hanssen was in real life a highly respected and skilled operative. He also sold classified information to Russia for approximately 22 years. His double life caused one of the most serious breaches of security in US history. The young O’Neil was not even an agent in the FBI and yet was a key figure in apprehending Hanssen.

In a way ‘Breach’ sneaks up on you. O’Neil is desperate to become an agent when the movie starts. Ambitious, foolhardy, maybe arrogant too, he is working his way up the FBI employment chain when he’s suddenly pulled off duty and reassigned by Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney). The assignment is a strange one: he will become Hanssen’s assistant and all the while keep tabs on the senior operative. Why? Because it would seem Hanssen is somewhat of a pervert.

If that sounds a bit strange to you then it probably sounded really strange to O’Neil who was pulled off a promising surveillance job to go work as an office assistant to a supposed pervert. As a boss Hanssen is rude, gruff, and cold. He asks a lot of O’Neil and berates him for just about everything (and he demands to be called “boss” or “sir”). Yet, he is in some ways not too far removed from O’Neil. It turns out they are both Catholics and not unlike O’Neil, Hanssen is ambitious, foolhardy and well, arrogant. Slowly Hanssen softens (as much as someone like him can) to his new assistant and the two begin to bond. There is an interesting duality between the two men as they really do have a lot in common, up to a point that is.

Nothing I have written makes ‘Breach’ sound very exciting but it starts slowly and builds and builds. Writer/ director Billy Ray has constructed an engaging spy film about real people and events. Told largely through the eyes of O’Neil, Ray shows how it would be possible for those in the FBI to respect and admire Hanssen who was all the while secretly selling out the country. This is Ray’s directorial follow up to the underrated film ‘Shattered Glass’. Both films are based on real people, deal with deceit and deception, and both films are dramas that contain almost no action but are tense and gripping.

If Ray has an ace up his sleeve it is in the form of Chris Cooper. Cooper owns the role and radiates authority in every move he makes in ‘Breach’. What is all the more impressive is for all of Hanssen’s evils, for all he does, Cooper never takes the easy out of making him some sort of inhuman monster. Instead, he is a deeply conflicted figure who became a traitor long ago. His motivations are never spelled out but they may have stemmed in part from his bruised ego after having been passed over by others in the FBI. He is very intelligent and when he is put in charge of revamping the security of a division in the FBI all his advice sounds correct. It is no wonder that despite his demeanor O’Neil bonds with the man. This makes Hanssen’s betrayal all the more devastating. To work under a figure of admiration and authority can be stressful enough, to have them abuse their power and place can make them devastating.

This is the second film that I have seen in less than a month about real events. The other was David Fincher’s epic ‘Zodiac’. It is interesting that ‘Breach’ has such a narrow focus in telling its story and ‘Zodiac’ has such a broad one. That is, perhaps, one of the strengths of ‘Breach’ and possibly why I enjoyed it more than ‘Zodiac’. (Of course I realize they are about very different subjects.) Even without explaining Hanssen’s motivation Cooper, Ray and company have painted about as solid a portrait of the man that could be done by focusing so closely on him. ‘Breach’ comes highly recommended and I can think of little reason not to give it a try.


'Breach' Links:


My review of 'Zodiac' can be seen HERE.

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