Screenwriter: Billy Ray, Adam Mazer, William Rotko
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Chris Cooper, Laura Linney, Gary Cole
Running time: 110 mins
Based on the true story of a senior FBI agent’s betrayal of his country to the Soviet Union, Breach, this cat and mouse thriller shuns generic conventions to give us an authentic and absorbing account of the events.
The narrative follows rookie FBI agent Eric O’Neill’s (Philippe) undercover mission to spy on renowned FBI operative Robert Hansen (Cooper) under the guise of his office assistant. Hanssen is believed to be a mole with over two decades' worth of leaking secrets, and also a pervert with a tendency to post explicit material on the web. This is initially at odds with the devout religious man O’Neill encounters, and doubts start to arise about the accusations. But as he becomes closer to the object of suspicion, his family life takes a turn for the worse and damning evidence starts to become within reach.
Breach’s prologue informs (or reminds) us of Robert Hanssen’s conviction for treason in February 2001, before recreating the events that uncovered his dastardly duplicity. Crucially, this eradicates the element of whether he was guilty or not from the dramatic equation and distances us from a shared perspective with lead protagonist Eric O’ Neill. However, this works in Breach’s favour by allowing us to focus instead on why Hanssen might have behaved so disgracefully and also how O’Neill - who is unsure of the man’s guilt at times - can uncover the crimes.
An outstanding performance by Chris Cooper as Hanssen is pivotal to heightening our interest in the unfolding narrative. Not conforming to the Hollywood conventions of the ‘bad guy’, the character is bathed in ambiguous complexity as a somewhat flawed human being. Cooper’s restrained, non-judgmental interpretation cleverly manipulates the audience into initially sympathising with the loneliness of Hanssen’s life, portraying an inner sadness of the man whose office is more like a cell and whose work has been largely unrecognised.
Then, as more revelations emerge, his somewhat sympathetic facial features take on a sinister, almost lizard-like appearance that conceals an inner malevolence. It’s simply a fascinating portrayal to watch. There’s also a genuine chemistry with Ryan Philippe, excellent in a less complex role, as the young agent tries to crack the seemingly impenetrable outer shell of his elder counterpart, sometimes with touches of subtle humour.
Given the intriguing nature of the story, the direction by Billy Ray is suitably unobtrusive and gives the performances time to breathe. No flashy stylised visuals intrude, nor is any overwrought score deployed. That’s not to say that the film is ‘stagey’ by any means, as the confined spatial environment of the FBI premises is expertly used to create claustrophobia, whilst smooth editing enables the pacing of the film to move along swiftly. Genuine suspense also governs certain sequences, most notably O’Neill’s attempts to copy the contents of Hanssen’s Palm Pilot whilst he has momentarily left it unattended.
Although hardly the most visual and twist-ridden true story ever, the tale of Robert Hanssen’s downfall is given a well-judged cinematic treatment by Breach, with two fine central performances generating the required authenticity and humanity to sustain our interest despite knowing the outcome from the start. It’s not where the narrative is going, but how it journeys there.