Spies often make for subjects of great films, but how often do we really think about them in the real world? Billy Ray’s Breach explores the tailing and arrest of Robert Hanssen (Cooper), now classified as the biggest spy and traitor in American history. A loving, church-going family man on the surface, Hanssen had been, in fact, selling government secrets to the Soviet Union for over twenty years.
Eric O’Neill (Phillippe) is a FBI newcomer who dreams of someday becoming a full agent. He is a computer whiz and has drafted his own 50+ page plan for beefing up IT security. Semi-impressed with his work, Kate Burroughs (Linney) assigns O’Neill to track the activities of Hanssen, whom, to O’Neill’s instructions at the time, is nothing more than a “sexual deviant” with an internet porn problem. If exposed, it could embarrass the entire agency. When O’Neill finds out Hanssen is a spy, he takes the only recourse he can for his country.
Instead of zeroing in on Hanssen’s motives and getting inside his head, which the film could have used more of, the screenplay, by Adam Mazer, Willian Rotko, and Ray, focuses in on the measures our government took to build evidence against Hanssen and eventually arrest him. In the wrong hands this could have been disastrous, but director Ray handles the material with just the right mix of drama and suspense. Ray is clearly fascinated by double-crossers (see his one and only previous directorial effort, Shattered Glass, about a writer who faked half his articles), and he seems right at home with this material. This is not an action-packed film, but instead relies on carefully constructed and well-written scenes between O’Neill and Hanssen. Their withering trust between one another is the true source of the suspense, and it works. Hanssen’s final frames in Breach will likely stay with you for days.
Also pivotal to the film’s success is the casting of Chris Cooper as Hanssen. Looking weathered, pale, and sleep-deprived, Cooper establishes a menacing presence from frame one. His Hanssen treats O’Neill like a gopher intern and is generally critical of everyone and everything, but he manages to gain trust and make people truly believe he is changing things for the better. It is a highly complicated performance, pulled off without a hitch by Cooper. Ryan Phillippe gets one of the best roles of his career here. He carries the dramatic end of the film well, even if the relationship with his wife, Juliana (Dhavernas), seems overcooked. He brings the right amount of youthful gullibility to the table, but turns nicely when the screenplay calls for it. There is a bit of typecasting going on here – Gary Cole as an office superior and Dennis Haysbert as a government superior – but it isn’t overly distracting.
Breach seems too good to be released this time of year, especially on such a busy release weekend, but I’m hoping it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. This is one of the more engaging spy stories to come along over the past few years and genre fans should eat it up.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 110 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language.
Theatrical Release: February 16, 2007
Directed by: Billy Ray
Written by: Adam Mazer & William Rotko & Billy Ray.
Cast: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert