Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Billy Ray

Cast: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison

MPAA Rating: PG-13  (for violence, sexual content and language)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 2/16/07

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Completely disregarding the conventions of the espionage thriller, director Billy Ray's Breach succeeds brilliantly as a morality tale and an absolutely engrossing character study.  As written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko, and Ray, this is a man so complex that the fact he is responsible for the most sweeping security breach in United States history might possibly be the least interesting thing about him. It would be easy to pigeonhole someone like Robert Hanssen, who spent at least 15 years of a 25-year career in the FBI selling secrets to the Soviet Union and later Russia, but Ray is surprisingly and affectingly sympathetic toward his subject. At least, he doesn't make any judgments or condemnations (Hanssen's real-life sentence is severe enough). At first glance, our subject seems like a simple paradox—a God-fearing, family-oriented traitor—but there are indeterminate demons lingering under the surface. It's a daunting task, but Ray manages to keep the entire affair focused on unraveling thread after thread of Hanssen. The thrills are cerebral but tangible. Breach also gives Chris Cooper, one of our foremost character actors, his deserved turn in the spotlight as the turncoat, committing wholly to a nuanced performance of routine, uncertain motives, and immeasurable pain.

We get to know Hanssen through Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an FBI techie who wants to become an agent. He works surveillance and has written a report on how better to secure the computer system of the agency, which he hopes will put him on the fast track. He and his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), who came to the US from Eastern Germany, wake up on Sunday morning to discuss their day when Eric gets a call from the bureau to come in. There he's met by Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), who wants him to investigate Hanssen for accusations of sexual depravity by working as his new assistant. Hanssen is one of, if not, the best computer operatives working for the FBI, with extensive experience during the Cold War and a knack for detecting deception. He has a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on his desk and a crucifix on his office wall. He goes to Mass every day, and his grandchildren love him. Not only does he seem the least likely candidate for sexual perversions, Eric begins to respect Hanssen for his work ethic and family life, taking Juliana to church with Hanssen and his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan).

There's much underneath the surface of that ideal life, as we already know. The film opens with then Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing Hanssen's arrest for espionage, and while that clearly undermines the surprise of the revelation within the narrative, it still has a significant impact when Burroughs finally tells Eric the real reason for investigating Hanssen. The screenplay accomplishes this by keeping the narrative structure entirely focused on a character level. The revelation itself is not a shock, but the details of Hanssen's espionage and its results contradict what kind of person he has, until this point, seemed to be. Certain details are important: At one point, he was in charge of the investigation looking for a mole. The amount of time he was able to and did go about these activities. People were killed as a result. All three point to Hanssen's conflicting nature; the first two point to deficiencies in the government's intelligence capacity. All of this takes place several months before 9/11, and the lack of oversight and interdepartmental ego-trips between the FBI and CIA in which each kept the other out of the loop are fairly direct criticisms of the United States' pre-9/11 intelligence community (Then again, how much better is it now?). While Hanssen is entirely to blame for his actions, how culpable is the government in allowing them to happen?

Politics aside, the film is complex in revealing Hanssen's character. Not only does the screenplay reveal it through him (dialogue and actions) and his history, it also makes the Eric and his relationship to Hanssen an important facet. Here are two very similar men. They both work in the same field. They both seem to take family seriously. Both have military fathers they have tried to appease through their career choice. And they are both Catholic. That might seem a small point, but the first image of Hanssen praying in church and the religious devotion it signifies is vitally important to the mystery of the man. Eric is a lapsed Catholic, and Hanssen not only makes it his mission to teach his protégé the ropes of the bureau but also, it seems, to try to save his soul. There is an incredible amount of guilt within these two men. Hanssen's reasons are obvious, but Eric's stem from a similar conflict within himself: betraying a man he admires and with whom he empathizes to uphold his duty. The difference between them is clear. At the end of the day, duty wins for Eric, while Hanssen appears to be selfishly driven by his guilt. Religion, then, seems the key to Hanssen. He knows the wrongs within himself—and they extend much greater than treason—and perhaps he finds atonement in Catholicism.

It's important to note that this is all speculation. Ray is an intelligent director and makes no attempts to explain Hanssen. There are pieces scattered everywhere, and it's left to the audience to try to assemble them as fully but still incompletely as possible. Cooper's performance is not so much a revelation as it is a reassertion. Much of our understanding of the character, so much an enigma to other character that they rarely speak of him, comes from his portrayal. His work is rote. Listen to the way he speaks of technical procedures as though he were bored. There's utter contempt in his voice when he speaks of the self-destructive politics of the intelligence community. His breakdown, which starts, appropriately enough, in a church confessional, is so weighted by forces within himself that even he seems unable to comprehend that it is difficult not to have sympathy for him. Ryan Phillippe is also quite good, if clearly overshadowed by Cooper. It's a curiosity through most of the film if Eric's admiration could ultimately change him for the worse. Laura Linney is also memorable as an agent whose only regret is that her years of service have been negated by Hanssen.

There are no easy answers at the end of Breach, and even Hanssen is left to hypothesize on his own motives. His exit line, full of the burden of everything he can and can't know, is perfect, but it still doesn't answer anything. Nor does the film condone Hanssen or his actions. The sheer strength of Breach is that it tells you everything about the man yet doesn't presume to know that great unknowable: Who he is.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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