The film Breach is a dramatization of a real-life sting operation that caught the worst spy in American history. As the FBI’s chief spy on the Soviet Union, over twenty-two years, Robert Hanssen instead smuggled U.S. secrets to the Soviets. His actions compromised at least fifty undercover operatives, cost the U.S. billions of dollars, and resulted in the murder of at least two people. He was so brazen that at one point he actually led a task force in charge of catching himself.
Eric O’Neill, played by Ryan Phillippe, is a Bureau rookie, smart and ambitious. He is appointed as assistant to Hanssen who, he is told, is being investigated for sexually deviant behavior on the Internet which could potentially embarrass the FBI. O’Neill resents being taken off of what he considers the fast track to babysit a pervert.
Hanssen, played in dyspeptic glory by Chris Cooper, has the slit and shifting eyes of a paranoid. By way of a handshake, he demands of O’Neill, "Tell me five things about you, four of them true." O’Neill responds, "I don’t think I’d be any good at bluffing." "That could count as your lie right there," says Hanssen, before barricading himself in his office.
But there is sudden thaw. Hanssen, perhaps responding to O’Neill’s facility with computers or the Catholicism in his background, takes O’Neill under his wing. Hanssen opines on every subject under the sun, with such intensity that at one point, as they are walking down a hallway, he runs O’Neill right into the wall. This is a man under great pressure who desperately needs someone to talk to. O’Neill, who wouldn’t mind a mentor, who already feels burned by FBI bureaucracy, can’t help extending his sympathies to his opponent.
If that were all there was to it, Breach would be an uncommonly tight and interesting thriller. But it’s Chris Cooper’s portrayal of the complex Hanssen that makes this an exceptional film. Hanssen actually believes the values he espouses. "An FBI agent is always on duty," he says, and "God expects you to live your faith at all times". Two rigid masters; no room to breathe. He claims the Russians are inferior because of their godlessness, even as he works for them. "What is money compared to the blessings of family?" he asks, even as he has tens of thousands of ill-gotten dollars under the floorboards of his house. He says his wife saved his soul, even as he betrays her in ways I won’t reveal. Cooper integrates these contradictory impulses into a man barely held together by excessive religiosity.
Breach is the second film from director Billy Ray, who also made the excellent Shattered Glass , another story about a real-life pathological liar. Breach is the more compassionate film. As we watch O’Neill fighting to keep his own head, we can see how easily a life full of secrets can lead to moral insanity.
This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.