Breach (2007) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Chris Cooper, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison
Director: Billy Ray
Screenplay: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray
Review published February 19, 2007

Director and co-writer Billy Ray is now two for two in the true story drama department with Breach, coming off of the masterful work he did with similar thematic material used in 2003's Shattered Glass With a subdued, straightforward approach, Ray lets the reality of the situations dictate the suspense of the film, developing his characters and their predicaments in such a way that very intricate, complex motivations are fully explained in basic, but still intelligent ways.  Although the monitoring of a spy by an operative posing as the man's personal assistant would seem like a very dry idea for spending two hours exploring, Breach proves to be one of the more riveting spy thrillers in recent years. 

Based on the true story of the takedown of the "worst spy in U.S. history", Breach follows the exploits of FBI operative Eric O'Neill (Phillippe, Five Fingers), an investigative specialist with dreams of getting a big case in order to fast-track to becoming a full-fledged agent.  When he is assigned to keep an eye on an veteran operative returning from assignment in Russia, Robert Hanssen (Cooper, Syriana), he thinks he is getting more menial work that will delay this promotion.  He is told to watch Hanssen for sings of his sexually deviant behavior, but in reality, he is monitoring his activities in order to gain his confidence enough for him to let his guard down a bit and gain information that he is working as a mole for the Russians.  Trouble is, O'Neill begins to respect and admire the man he is supposed to spy on, while the duplicity of his situations in causing him many problems on the home front.

Breach proves that thrillers that are easy to follow aren't less intelligent, they are just told well.  With commanding performances by Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe, and a solid supporting cast, Breach unfolds in a deliberate but viewer-friendly fashion, allowing us to understand the nature of the characters and their situations before the more serious developments occur.  By the time the film hits the big climax, the uncertainty of the stability of the main players gives the story the impetus it needs to keep us on the edges of our seats in anticipation as to how it all would play out. 

Although many films based on true stories tend to embellish major plot points in order to make them more engaging as stories, Breach does benefit by adhering closer to the real-life events than most of its Hollywood-produced brethren.  With the help of O'Neill himself, who was frequently consulted in order to make sure things were as close to how events played out as possible, the lack of typical contrivances allows us to feel unsure as to how the story eventually settle, even though we are given a glimpse at the beginning of the film through a briefing by John Ashcroft on Hanssen's capture.  It's not the capture that makes the climax riveting, but rather, the tension as to how it is done and the ramifications on these characters, especially in a tricky scenario where O'Neill is left literally exposed to this man on the brink of his faculties, with everything on the line.

Like Shattered Glass, Breach succeeds due to Ray's ability to get us to feel like we know these characters, never painting anyone as truly good or bad -- just people stuck in dire situations.  We relate to each scene as if it could happen to us, or someone we know; when O'Neill searches Hanssen's office, we feel his anxiety right along with him.  Meanwhile, Hanssen's character is drawn with appropriate complexity, a professed devout Catholic with obvious flaws; though arrogant, he seems to have it together, but underneath, his lack of ability to understand just which way is up anymore makes him a very dangerous adversary for the naive, untested O'Neill. 

As unnerving as a man like Robert Hanssen might be, the real scare of the film is in seeing just how fragile our espionage division seems, subject to the whims of key people as to what secrets are leaked, who gets killed because of it, and how hard it is to trace these subversive events.  When the FBI suspects a mole within the organization, they are so clueless as to just who it might be, they put Hanssen in charge of it, which ensures these activities can continue indefinitely.  A deeply religious, Conservative, self-professed patriotic, take-no-BS kinda guy, a figure like Hanssen shows how even the best of agents can be perverted by ego, greed, and in thinking that what he's doing is all a game; he wants to be a main player. 

Hanssen would pray daily for guidance in every facet of his life.  If this is the kind of guy that would so willingly give up the lives of his fellow countrymen, and jeopardize many more in the nation he is sworn to protect, we should be the ones who pray.  We should also hope it does us more good than it did for him.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo