Universal // 2007 // 111 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // July 3rd, 2007
Inspired by the true story of the greatest security breach in U.S. history.
Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillipe tag-team this real-life espionage dramatization documenting the takedown of the countryÂ's most nefarious home-grown spy. Breach is not a film to be missed.
In 2001, FBI analyst Robert Hanssen (played here by Chris Cooper, The Bourne Identity) was nabbed for an unprecedented level of espionage. For over 20 years, the man sold our nation's most confidential secrets to the Russians, costing the U.S. billions of dollars and compromising a number of agents. The film picks up in the middle of the investigation as young agent-to-be Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillipe, Cruel Intentions) is brought in as Hanssen's clerk. His true mission, of course, is to gather intelligence on Hanssen's movements, so a massive FBI task force can corral Hanssen in the middle of a "dead drop," thus sealing the case and his fate.
But the investigation is taxing and O'Neill must maintain his composure as the key intel-gatherer, and keep from arousing Hanssen's suspicions. The assignment will take a toll on O'Neill's home life as well, ostracizing him from his wife Julianna (Caroline Dhavernas). The cost is high, but the upside will be to intercept the worst breach the nation has ever faced.
I love these true-life espionage movies, and Breach is a fantastic entry into the thriller genre. Tense, transfixing and supremely executed, the film manages to enthrall despite the veritable lack of any traditional action. This is an experience that wages everything on the strength of the story and the capability of the actors and on both counts, the film delivers powerful good.
Director Billy Ray (I'm tempted to tack another surname) wisely decides to show the ending first, with real press conference footage of John Ashcroft announcing the arrest of Hanssen in 2001. That's fine, because anyone who did a rudimentary bit of research before watching the film knows how it wraps. The suspense then comes not from the resolution, but the process that facilitates it.
And Ray and his comrades nail it. From the opening moments when we meet O'Neill "ghosting" a possible terrorist to his big break when he's selected to shadow Hanssen and all the subsequent Hanssen/O'Neill interaction up to the arrest you know is coming (yet is still white-knuckle tense) the execution of the plot is top-shelf. The downside to showing the ending up front is the wait for the inevitable turn. O'Neill is given a cover story that Hanssen is involved in a porno ring though everyone involved -- including the viewers -- knows this is not the case. So it's a waiting game until O'Neill's handler (played with typical skill by Laura Linney) spills the beans about the true nature of the assignment. I'll admit, part of me was anxious to get to the reveal, but Ray and his writers ensured that events moved swiftly enough to the pivotal scene. From that point on, however, the film really moved.
What do we do with a guy like Hanssen? That's the question I was left with and am confident that it's the question the filmmakers wanted us to ponder. There is no neat explanation of what drove the man to do the awful things he did, even though a tantalizing monologue at the end throws out some ideas. I for one am glad that Billy Ray left the "why" ambiguous; Hanssen was a grade-A douche, a man who orchestrated indefensible crimes against his country, yet preserved the facade of a dedicated churchgoer and family man. For me, the Hanssen character provided an example of a man who is a master of compartmentalization. He will spend hours on his knees praying to God one moment, then sell out a fellow agent to his death. He will lovingly play with his grandchildren, then mail tapes of him and his wife having sex to a man in Germany. He will lecture his clerk about patriotism and heroism, and then sell out the values such heroism bolsters to the highest bidder. It's a fascinating characterization.
Made all the more fascinating by yet another powerhouse performance from Chris Cooper. The guy's elite and brings his A-game to the role (that last line? brilliant), though give Phillippe credit: he hangs with the big dog, turning out a focused performance. Supporting work from Linney, Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert are across-the-board money and further class up the film.
Let's keep the good tidings flowing and talk about this HD DVD, easily the strongest showing by Universal I've seen in my early experience as a high-def early adopter. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (1080p, VC-1 encoded) is stunning on my 1080i rig. The picture is clean and the detailing is sublime. Great dark levels as well, noticed especially in the pitch of Chris Cooper's suits. And those expansive shots of D.C. are beautiful. For audio, you'll get two Dolby Digital 5.1 Plus tracks (English and French). The mix is good, though front-loaded; discrete channels kick in primarily for score.
The kicker on this disc is the bonus material. Identical to the standard DVD on the flipside (this release is a combo format), are the following: Eighteen minutes worth of deleted scenes that are actually interesting (with optional commentary), "Breaching the Turth," a nice making-of doc featuring the filmmakers, actors and even the real-life counterparts, "Anatomy of a Character," which focuses in on Cooper's extraordinary portrayal, the original Robert Hanssen segment that aired on Dateline in 2001 and an excellent commentary track from Billy Ray and the real Eric O'Neill. The bread and butter of the extras is the "U Control" in-movie experience, which displays a picture-in-picture prompt during the film that reveals behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. Dope.
I think I covered this adequately enough, but just to be sure, though the cover art of Breach makes it look like a sequel to The Bourne Identity, this is a plot and character-driven drama, not a slam-bang shoot 'em up. Look elsewhere for the exploding cars.
A great espionage yarn and an A-1 HD DVD combine for a smoking release.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS HD 5.1 EX (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 EX (French)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director's Commentary
* U-Control Picture-in-Picture
* "Breaching the Truth" Featurette
* Deleted Scene Scenes
* Anatomy of a Character
* "The Mole" Dateline Segment