Director : Billy Ray
Screenplay : Adam Mazer & William Rotko and Billy Ray (story by Adam Mazer & William Rotko)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Chris Cooper (Robert Hanssen), Ryan Phillippe (Eric O'Neill), Laura Linney (Kate Burroughs), Caroline Dhavernas (Juliana O'Neill), Gary Cole (Rich Garces), Dennis Haysbert (Dan Plesac), Kathleen Quinlan (Bonnie Hanssen), Bruce Davison (John O'Neill), Jonathan Watton (Geddes), Tom Barnett (Jim Olsen)
Writer/director Billy Ray has followed his first film, 2003's Shattered Glass about disgraced New Republic journalist Stephen Glass, with Breach, another based-on-a-true-story depiction of professional and moral duplicity, except this time with much, much higher stakes. The central character in Breach is Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a devout Catholic, dedicated family man, and 25-year veteran of the FBI who, it turned out, was also a double agent for the Soviet Union and Russia who is now recognized as "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history."
A number of books have already been written about the Hanssen case, as well as a made-for-TV movie, but Ray approaches the material from a different perspective: by focusing on Eric O'Neill (Ryan Philippe), a young agent who was brought in to "ride" Hanssen's desk and accumulate evidence about his espionage. O'Neill's involvement was classified and downplayed for several years and hence was not included in some of the early coverage of the notorious case, which gives Ray a new spin on the material. Even more importantly, though, it gives him a particularly movie-ish approach, allowing for such classic espionage moments as the one in which someone is going through someone else's briefcase just as the owner is about to walk through the door.
This is both the film's strength and its weakness, as it provides for some classic suspense moments, but often at the expense of a deeper, richer portrait of an intensely conflicted man. Where Shattered Glass turned a desperate, people-pleasing journalist into a movingly tragic figure, Robert Hanssen never quite comes alive in Breach as anything more than a target to be caught in the act. By shifting the focus to O'Neill and how his profession causes trouble at home with his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), Ray sacrifices the chance to delve deeper into Hanssen's tortured psyche. We get a sense of what the film might have been in a scene in which Hanssen sits down to have his photograph taken for the FBI's 25-year veteran wall and is so discomfited by both the effeminate photographer noting the shine on his nose and the need to force a smile that he storms out of the room.
In this and in other scenes we get bits and pieces of Hanssen's personality--his suspiciousness, his need to test everyone around him, his dual penchants for both rage and self-righteousness, and his condescending arrogance--but it never fully comes together. Part of this may be the casting of Chris Cooper, who gives an excellent, nuanced performance, but looks completely wrong for the part. When you see actual photographs of Hanssen, he truly looks like the geek-dad next door who would mow his yard with black socks and Bermuda shorts. From the first moment we see Cooper on screen, he looks like a fierce, chiseled Cold Warrior, someone who would sell secrets that result in death just to prove that he could. Cooper does everything he can to suggest the nuances of Hanssen's conflicting aims in life (not to mention his overt hypocrisy), but we really feel how deep his divisions run.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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