Engaging Docudrama, Elevated by Performance of Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper gives an outstanding performance in Breach (2007), a well-acted docudrama dealing with the two-month period that culminated in the arrest for espionage of FBI agent Robert Hanssen. The movie's central character is Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young FBI operative who played a key role in gathering evidence needed to convict the spy. The film has an excellent supporting cast that includes Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Gary Cole and Kathleen Quinlan.
Breach opens with archival footage of the US Attorney General announcing Hanssen's arrest, so there's not much suspense in the movie. Also, there are no action sequences of any consequence. But the film works well as a procedural, giving us a fascinating glimpse into the world of the FBI. And most of all, Cooper enthralls us with his compelling portrayal of the enigmatic Robert Hanssen.
The Spy Who Wants to Bring His Assistant Back to the Church
In Breach, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is a senior FBI agent who rails at what he refers to as the "godless" Russians, yet he sells important US secrets to them. He's a dedicated family man, but he indulges in some repugnant sex-related activities. Also, he's a devout Roman Catholic who goes to mass every day and is a member of Opus Dei.
But the movie focuses mainly on young FBI operative Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who is assigned to be Hanssen's assistant. The bureau has discovered that the senior agent is a traitor and tasks O'Neill with helping to build a stronger case against his new boss. The young man would have little chance of succeeding in this mission except for one thing: Hanssen has a blind spot when it comes to Catholicism.
As it happens — or, was this part of the FBI's plan all along? — O'Neill was a good Catholic as a boy and went to a Jesuit college, but later became inactive in the Church. This is catnip to Hanssen, who can't resist taking it upon himself to try to bring the young man back to the faith of his youth. O'Neill manages to use the religious issues to distract the usually wary senior agent, permitting the bureau to make the espionage case against him.
The Film's Strengths and Weaknesses
Both Robert Hanssen and Eric O'Neill are real people, and the movie is based on them. O'Neill acted as a consultant on the film, and that may be one reason the scenes at FBI headquarters feel so authentic. It's fun just listening to bureau lingo.
Hanssen is by far the most interesting character in Breach, but what really makes him tick remains a mystery from beginning to end. Instead of illuminating Hanssen's character, the filmmakers chose to emphasize narrative drive by organizing the story around O'Neill making a hero's journey. But the movie isn't richly textured and doesn't have much resonance.
Both O'Neill and Hanssen were married, and their wives are played in the film by Caroline Dhavernas and Kathleen Quinlan. The story is strengthened by showing the intertwining of the personal and professional lives of the FBI employees, but some of the domestic scenes are unconvincing.
An Informative Audio Commentary
The Breach DVD provides an excellent feature-length audio commentary by writer-director Billy Ray, and he is ably supported by Eric O'Neill, the real-life man portrayed by Ryan Phillippe in the film. They supply interesting information about Robert Hanssen, and O'Neill says his boss used to tell him that to be Roman Catholic was only the JV, and to be on the varsity, he would have to join Opus Dei. Also, Ray and O'Neill spell out where the movie departs from what actually happened. In addition, they report details that enrich the story. For example, for a long time US law enforcement knew there was a mole, but didn't suspect Hanssen, instead pursuing innocent CIA employee Brian Kelley to the point of derailing his career.
Also, Ray tells about the locations used for the movie, and it turns out that over 80 percent of the film was shot in and around Toronto. However, the story is set entirely in the Washington, D.C., area, although only 10 days were spent shooting there. The movie's reenactment of Hanssen making his final drop and then being arrested were filmed at the Fairfax County, Virginia, locations where the actual events occurred. There's nothing special about these locations from a viewer's perspective, but shooting in them may well have helped the actors get into character.
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