Breach (United States, 2007)
No matter how compelling and intriguing a real-life story may be, it doesn't necessarily translate into an equally compelling and intriguing motion picture. Breach is a case in point. Based on the widely publicized case of turncoat FBI agent Robert Hanssen, which dominated headlines in late February 2001, the movie succeeds at being a thriller with few thrills. With an end that is predetermined (and revealed to anyone who might be in the dark in the opening scene, a news clip of John Ashcroft announcing Hanssen's arrest), there's little room for suspense. Billy Ray's chronicling of Hanssen's capture has its high points, but it's a little on the dry side. Thank god for Chris Cooper.
Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is in training to be an FBI special agent when he is called into a meeting with Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney). She has an assignment for Eric: become the clerk for Agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) and make detailed notes of all his activities. Hanssen is suspected of being a sexual deviant and the Feds want proof of that before they take action. After a few thorny initial encounters with Hanssen, Eric grows to respect the older man, who seems to be a God-fearing, morally upstanding patriot. He's also a master manipulator who can see through any lie - survival traits for one in his position. It's when Eric expresses doubts about Hanssen's guilt to Kate that he learns the whole truth. The real reason Hanssen is under investigation isn't because of his unusual sexual proclivities but because he is suspected of being a Russian agent. The evidence, which a nonplused Eric examines with growing horror, is damning.
Breach is a one-man show. Chris Cooper brings a badly needed spark to an otherwise energy-deprived production. Cooper is brilliant as Hanssen - a smart, creepy misanthrope whose tormented soul is briefly revealed in several telling sequences. He's a walking contradiction: he loves his family and wife, wants to connect with Eric, goes to mass every day, yet he makes amateur porn tapes and sells his country's dearest secrets to Russia.The film doesn't delve deeply into Hanssen's motivations or background, but Cooper is so good that such omissions don't damage the three-dimensionality of the character. In the actor's hands, Hanssen becomes an uncommon villain - a man who is equally easy to despise, pity, and feel compassion for.
What's missing is an actor of equivalent talent to play opposite Cooper. Ryan Phillippe isn't terrible but he can't hold his own and, as a result, it's impossible to believe that his character could outwit, outmaneuver, and eventually bring down Hanssen. Phillippe doesn't convince as Eric - the emotions don't seem real and there are too many scenes in which it's evident that he's acting. Also in the cast are an underused Laura Linney as Eric's handler, an even more underused Dennis Haysbert as her superior, and Caroline Dhavernas as Eric's adorable, outspoken wife.
This is Billy Ray's second foray into the world of real life scandals. His previous outing, Shattered Glass, about a reporter who made up stories, was more effective. While there's an undeniable fascination associated with the Hanssen case, the subject is not inherently cinematic. Although there are some high points (and higher stakes) in the psychological poker game played by the two leads, there's a sense that this might make a better documentary than a feature film. The material is not energetic and the character relationships are insufficiently developed for this to represent consistently engrossing cinema. Cooper's powerful presence elevates the movie when he's on screen, but the rest of the mediocre material suffers in his absence. Phillippe struggles mightily to capture the camera's attention when he's on his own, and he can't do it. Breach is competently made but, aside from Cooper's performance, there's nothing here worth getting excited about.
Breach (United States, 2007)
Cast: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan
Screenplay: Adam Mazer & William Rotko and Billy Ray
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures