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Breach

starring Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe and Laura Linney
written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Billy Ray and directed by Billy Ray
rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and language.
89%

On February 18, 2001, FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested for selling secrets to the Soviet Union over a period of nearly two decades. Breach is based on the true story of the last few months of the Hanssen investigation, which succeeded in part thanks to Eric O’Neill, who was assigned to watch Hanssen while pretending to be his aide. The movie is a spy thriller that gives away its own outcome in the very first scene, and works backward from there. Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity, Adaptation) plays Hanssen, Ryan Phillippe (Gosford Park, Crash) plays Eric and Laura Linney (The Truman Show, Mystic River) plays Kate Burroughs, the career-obsessed agent running the investigation from behind the scenes.

These actors and their performances are the film’s strongest point. They have to be, because the factual framework of the film’s story and the decision to reveal the story’s outcome in the opening scene ensure that the plot will generate no tension of its own. Cooper delivers magnificently, effortlessly navigating between sneering superior, warm mentor and slightly-unhinged paranoiac without seeming schizophrenic. However, tying the movie’s perspective to Ryan Phillippe’s character (Eric O’Neill served as a consultant to the filmmakers) means that we never really see a side of Hanssen that is willing and able to commit espionage. We only see the facade he must maintain to succeed (and survive).

Hanssen’s letters to the Soviets seem written by someone with a highly-sophisticated, sardonic sense of humor, amused by the child-like fumblings of his country’s intelligence services. Cooper does not have the opportunity to reveal this aspect of the character in his performance, and Hanssen’s motives are only briefly and superficially explored. This is unfortunate because we are left with a relatively shallow (though expertly-drawn) portrait of an obviously deep and complicated character.

This is not to say that Eric’s character is uninteresting. His struggle to hold a young marriage together while the secrecy and uncertainty of his job drive a wedge into it add a well-grounded human side to the spy vs. spy shenanigans. The unique nature of his assignment requires him to allow certain aspects of his work to invade very sensitive areas of his personal life (such as his shaky commitment to Catholicism).

Hanssen, ultimately the villain, encourages Eric to attend church and make God and community a part of his family life. Burroughs, struggling to see justice done, pressures him to shut out his wife, put his job first and maintain an elaborate deception that threatens his relationships and his sanity. Eric’s commitment and ability point to a successful career in his chosen profession, and yet, the audience wonders, whose example should he be more wary of: Hanssen’s or Burroughs’? The answer is, of course, both. Eric must find and follow his own path.

Questions and concerns like these hold additional interest, but Eric’s character simply cannot compete with the fascination Hanssen’s inspires. But, unlike Eric’s, Hanssen’s family life is woefully underdeveloped, particularly his relationship with his children. How much does his family know or suspect about his double life? What are there reactions to the arrest? What does he say to them, and they to him? There are many badly missed opportunities where the answers to these question are ignored.

The necessary limitations of Eric’s perspective and knowledge of the final outcome make the cat-and-mouse games amusing and entertaining instead of gripping and satisfying. But in a movie where so much is certain so early on, it is strange to sense a distinct lack of closure by the time the final credits roll. There is a great deal of skill and potential, but the film settles for far less than it should have.

  • Co-reviewed with Randy
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~ by Jared on February 21, 2007.

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