Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Breach” is ostensibly about the worst breach of security in the U.S. Secret Service, but director Billy Ray (like in his debut film “Shattered Glass”) is less interested in the legal details of the case, and more interested in the actual weakness of character of the criminal.
“Shattered Glass” gave us Hayden Christensen’s best performance. “Breach” gives us an equally stellar character examination from Chris Cooper, who, as Robert Hanssen, a man who sold secrets to the Soviets during the Cold War and was responsible for the deaths of countless secret agents, gives us not a cackling villain or an amoral snot, but a quiet, tough-minded, devoutly Catholic moral guidepost. The film is less a thriller about shootings and secrets, and more about reconciling one’s own religious beliefs with the need to do something that is largely immoral, and (in the eyes of the U.S. government) very, very dangerous.
The film actually centers on a green, go-getter CIA agent named Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) who is assigned, secretly, by his bosses (represented by Laura Linney) to work as a secretary for the recently desk-consigned (and predictably bitter) Hanssen. Her cover story is that he’s been mongering porn and having online affairs, but the truth soon comes to light: Everyone seems to know for sure that Hanssen is actually responsible for a constant stream of leaked information, but O’Neill can see no indiscretions from him. In fact, Hanssen is a family man (married to Kathleen Quinlan), talks constantly about how great Christ is, and is intensely interested in saving O’Neill’s soul, especially from his heathen wife (Caroline Dhavernas). It’s all O’Neill probes deeper and deeper, all under the guise of wanting to be saved. Eventually he begins to realize that perhaps Hanssen is helping him with his spirituality, and can’t possibly be bad in any way (despite his pushy manner and unending bitterness).
Hanssen’s only real crime seems to be a particularly strong attraction to Catherine Zeta-Jones; he watches “Entrapment” and “The Mask of Zorro” secretly in his office. Watch the preview for “Entrapment” again, and note the scene of Zeta-Jones’ be-spandex-ed ass writhing about laser beams. Perhaps Hanssen is just a man.
Of course we know at the outset that Hanssen is guilty of what he’s been accused of, so it’s a game for us and for O’Neill to see the cracks in his otherwise peerless character. O’Neill has a lot of backstory and crisis (with his wife, and even, briefly with his dad, played by Bruce Davison), but the film is really about Hanssen.
Chris Cooper is amazing in the role. He let’s us see the subtle weaknesses, moral indignation, and natural hypocrisy, all without resorting to tiresome monologues or thriller histrionics. The movie is all his. Phillippe is fine in his role, but O’Neill could have been played by any number of young actors to the same effect.
It’s tense and very, very well-acted, “Breach.” Just don’t expect the same kind of foot chases and gunplay like in, say “The Firm.”