The closest Judge Adam Arseneau has come to committing espionage was re-broadcasting Major League Baseball with implied oral consent, not express written consent. Or so the legend goes...
Inspired by the true story of the greatest security breach in U.S. history.
Chronicling the true story of the capture of the notorious spy Robert Hanssen, Breach received critical praise but failed to make much impact at the box office. Tenuous and introspective, does Breach pass the espionage mustard, so to speak?
Facts of the Case
When FBI operative Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe, Flags of Our Fathers) gets a new assignment in Washington, he can barely contain his excitement. Bright and ambitious, he has worked hard at surveillance and counterterrorism to impress the brass, hoping to make the rank of agent. Having been hand-picked for this new assignment, he feels good about his prospects in the FBI; that is, until he gets briefed on his new job.
Agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper, American Beauty) has been assigned to Washington to spearhead a new division of the FBI relating to information assurance. O'Neill has been tasked with being his personal assistant, a task which O'Neill approaches with unenthusiastic gloom at being delegated to office work. But as he spends more time with Hanssen, seeing the complexity, paranoia, and depth of the man, he begins to realize he may be part of something altogether larger.
Once he questions his superiors (Laura Linney, The Squid and the Whale) about his assignment, they bring him in on the true nature of the assignment: to collect enough incriminating evidence against Hanssen to charge him with espionage. Hanssen has been selling top-secret information to the Russians for over a decade, and through careful planning and observation, the FBI almost has enough evidence to catch him once and for all. Methodical and paranoid, Hanssen has managed to outsmart almost every mind in the Bureau for nearly 15 years. But if they manage to catch him here, in the act, they will have thrown a net onto the biggest security breach in American intelligence history…
For a dramatic thriller, there is a surprising lack of mystery in Breach. From the first frame, we know exactly who the bad guy is, and what his crime has been. Instead of keeping the audience in suspense as to "whodunit," the film is an exercise in execution and delivery, charming its audience through setup and slowly building expectation, laying out exactly how a man goes about becoming the biggest violator of the Espionage Act in U.S. history. It is a testament to the solid delivery of the film that so much drama and tension can be generated from a story in which we are fully aware how it ends.
Why did Hanssen commit such a crime against his own government? Believe it or not, the question is moot at best, at least for the purposes of Breach. There are theories abound, but ultimately, the "whys" of such a crime are unknowable, perhaps even to Hanssen himself. At best, all we have is a rough outline—a case study of a man, if you will—an examination of the personality and events that could lead a person to commit acts of espionage against his own country. Any answer given would at best be an intangible half-truth.
Hanssen is pious, self-righteous, paranoid, indignant, and dangerously intelligent, awash in arrogance and tormented by the creeping realization of his own irrelevance within the FBI. Over a 15-year period, he gave up to the Russians damning information that may have lead to the death of up to 50 operatives, the exact extent of which has still yet to be determined (and being kept under close wraps by the FBI, for obvious reasons). But for his services, he received a fairly paltry sum of just over one million dollars—not an exorbitant sum for a decade and a half of life-risking espionage. Indeed, his betrayals seem to run far deeper than greed and financial gain; more the act of a fiendishly brilliant mind unable to master the political nuances required to succeed in the hierarchical FBI, pushed into redundancy and irrelevance by politicking. Hanssen is a man searching for worth within the FBI, who found relevance somewhere else, via the KGB. This "why" is the true mystery in Breach, one that is never quite solved to satisfaction, left dangling like a modifier.
A second side to Hanssen's personality, one almost as infamous as his espionage spying, is his sexual deviancy. Hanssen had a soft spot for hookers and making videotapes of himself and his wife having sex, distributing them throughout the world in underground circles. Breach touches upon these nuances of Hanssen's personality, but sparingly, only when required to proceed with the undoing of the man. Having reviewed another film on the subject of Hanssen, Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story, which found perverse enjoyment in focusing on the, ahem, naughty bits, Breach seems coolly disinterested in exploiting the man's sexuality for dramatic effect. It is a credit to the filmmakers to steer clear, more or less, from this admittedly racy subplot and stay true to the film's rigidly cool introspection.
The true brilliance of Breach comes not from its story, which is arguably the weakest aspect of the film, but in the performance of Chris Cooper as Hanssen. Cooper brings to the role a fanatical determination and poise, hammering out one of the most underrated performances of the year. His caricature of Hanssen is believable, not in its resemblance to the "real" Hanssen (who's to know, really?) but in persuading the audience that the character on-screen might actually be capable of such narcissistic, destructive acts. It is a special treat to see Cooper, so often delegated to supporting roles, finally don the shoes of the "leading man" in a Hollywood film. In terms of supporting cast, Phillippe does a fine job as operative Eric O'Neill, being the cat to Hanssen's mouse, but his performance is a little wooden in comparison to Cooper's range. Laura Linney and Caroline Dhavernas round out the gender elements, but offer little on screen to justify mention. They show up for work, which is something, I suppose.
With no on-screen thrills to speak of, the shifting dynamics between Hanssen and O'Neill drive all the dramatic tension in Breach. O'Neill finds himself constantly under the microscope in Hanssen's presence; every lie that comes out of O'Neill's mouth resonates with the implication of possibly blowing his cover or forfeiting his life. We are introduced to Hanssen as both an expert in lie recognition and a man extremely paranoid, tendencies which do not abate as the film progresses. O'Neill's constant deception of the more experienced agent offers up some seriously nail-biting sequences, the only genuinely thrilling moments Breach has to offer.
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, Breach is a cold film; not like ice is cold, but like a wall is cold. Calm, calculated, and ponderingly slow, Breach refuses to succumb to cheap clichés or the expectations of Hollywood to start raining bullets and explosions upon its audience. Hanssen the man might have fancied himself a James Bond wannabe, but Breach is nothing of the sort; the film, like Hanssen's spying, is an exercise in self-restraint, methodical planning, and introspection. I found it slow, but quite enjoyable for its own unique merit, well-constructed and executed with strong performances and minimalist style and direction. To put it succinctly, Breach is not your average espionage thriller—and thank goodness for that.
With its somber palate of midnight blues and steely grays, Breach looks fantastic, with dark and deep black levels, no noticeable grain or print damage, and sharp details. The transfer is near-perfect in its technical fortitude. The surround sound track is a bit less impressive. The melancholic piano soundtrack and throbbing bass score is wonderfully atmospheric and tension-building, but the dialogue is often muted and hard to hear. The rear channels are essentially unused.
Supplementary features include a full-length commentary track with director Billy Ray and former FBI operative Eric O'Neill—yes, the real one, not Ryan Phillippe. We don't often get to see such direct involvement in a cinematic adaptation from a person who actually participated in the events depicted on-screen, so having the real O'Neill chime in on the commentary adds another authoritative level to an already convincing and realistic film. We get about 20 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes; a featurette entitled "Breaching The Truth," covering how the Hanssen story was brought to the screen; "Anatomy of a Character," discussing the casting of Chris Cooper for the role; and a Dateline NBC feature entitled "The Mole," discussing details and profile information about Robert Hanssen.
One final note: the subtitles are English SDF, which may or may not be to your preference. For me, they worked well during this film because of the finicky and often too-quiet dialogue levels, but I know they bug the tar out of some people.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a thriller, Breach suffers from bone-crushingly slow pacing. When the most dramatic moment in a film comes in the form of stealing a Palm Pilot, you know you're in for a subdued ride. This is not a bad thing per se, but you definitely need to be in the right frame of mind, you know what I mean? If you want a political thriller to munch on with your popcorn, you're better off with people like Jason Bourne over Robert Hanssen.
The story of Hanssen is a fascinating one, and the film is executed with expert poise, but in Breach, the excitement never peaks; it kind of wavers slightly above flatline, alternating between mildly interesting and just plain mild.
A calculated and cerebral thriller, Breach is a thinking man's espionage film. Here, the real mystery of the film is not solving the puzzle or capturing the bad guy, but unraveling the motives and inflated egos that lead a man down the road of damnation. Superb acting performances and a sharp DVD presentation make this one pretty easy to recommend.
It's slow-moving, but slickness and sophistication more than compensate. Hanssen may be serving a life sentence in a Supermax prison, but Breach is found not guilty.
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• Feature Commentary with Director Billy Ray and Former FBI Operative Eric O'Neill
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