Writer/director Billy Ray, who established himself in 2003 with Shattered Glass, the true story of a young journalist convicted of fabricating stories for The New Republic, doesn’t stray far from what he has proven to be his area of expertise. With Breach, Ray depicts yet another true story of a white-collar liar suffocating himself with his own deception. Ray smartly tells this tale of espionage with a chillingly somber, humble quality, as he is interested more in the multiplicities of such a story’s characters and their tense relationships with each other than in the sheer spectacle of a typical explosion-ridden spy thriller. But does Ray lose an audience prepared for high-speed car chases to the film’s eerie dreariness? In fact, Breach does packs thrills, but of a different kind. And the majority of the film is a calculated, effective analysis of a man’s treason stripped of the conventional glossy Hollywood image to its bare, banal reality.
The film depicts the two months that precede the conviction of FBI agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a devout catholic and sexual deviant, for selling valuable U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union/Russia throughout 23 of his 25 years of service. The U.S. Department of Justice calls Hanssen’s security breach “probably the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.” Ray tells the story from the perspective of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a driven young man assigned to spy on Hanssen and catch the traitor in the act; thus the audience gets to see very little of Hanssen’s duplicitous activities. But again, that isn’t Ray’s concern, for he is more interested in the way this man’s betrayal complicates his personality and his relationship with others, particularly his relationship with O’Neill. After all, the film begins with an actual clip of John Ashcroft announcing Hanssen’s arrest for spying. The audience knows he’s guilty from the beginning, making it explicitly clear that the extent of Hanssen’s espionage isn’t the point.
Rather, the suspense lies within Cooper’s performance. Cooper gracefully naturalizes the enigma and contradiction that is Robert Hanssen with haunting gravity, depicting a chilling monster that looks pitifully tortured by his inner demons. His bitter Bible-talk (at one point he blames the defeat of the Soviet Union on “godlessness”) and dogmatic Catholic faith (he creepily attempts to convert O’Neill’s wife over an uninvited visit to his assistant’s home) is brilliantly complemented by his pathetically suppressed perversion.
Cooper subtly suggests all of Hanssen’s possible motives, but leaves the answer undisclosed. His treason may be misplaced — childish revenge against his overly abusive policeman father, a self-proclaimed patriotic attempt to expose the weakness of U.S. security, or an egotistical effort to prove his worth in what he calls a “gun culture,” where the men behind desks are not given adequate recognition for their skills and service. But whatever his motive, Cooper powerfully leaves the audience to decide whether to pity him, condemn him or both.
Phillippe’s portrayal of O’Neill ultimately works as a contrast to Hanssen’s character (his youthful, subordinate, promotion-hungry personality serves as an appropriate foil to the jaded, disgruntled Hanssen), yet there are very few sparks between the two, and the fault most definitely does not lie with Cooper. Phillippe is too aware of his character’s deliberate dispassion as a real-life spy, and his shortcomings are all the more apparent when he shares screen time with Cooper. Although the audience is aware of Hanssen’s misdeeds while O’Neill initially is not, Phillippe fails to sell the dramatic irony.
Yet Phillippe isn’t destructive enough to sink the boat. With the film’s dimly lit, claustrophobic sets, and its ominously brittle music score which meticulously builds on the tension of the scene, it sneaks into the genre as a cleverly unorthodox spy thriller which doesn’t rely on adrenaline-pumping visual spectacle for its appeal. Yet, even for those who aren’t fans of the espionage genre, especially the kind that avoids mind-numbing action, Breach is worth seeing simply for Cooper, for he is the heart of the thrill.