Most of the great spy films where set during those turbulent years of the cold war. While this time was frightening for the general population is was a golden era for Hollywood. There is nothing like a good spy flick to thrill the audience. With the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union it seemed that the interest in spy films would decline. Now most entries in this genre are either period pieces or special effects driven. If you aren’t into the gadget laden Bond flicks and want a good, captivating tale of espionage then thankfully there is something out on DVD that will satisfy the most discriminating spy film buff, Breach. This movie is based on a true story; as the tagline announces ‘greatest security breach in U.S. history’. This is not the action pack spy films most of us are used to. Instead it offers to the audience something not often found in American films, an intelligently written and directed film with a dedicated and talented cast. This is a psychological thriller that will pull you into to a dark world of betrayal, greed and secrets. It is the presentation of the characters that drive this film; the effect the circumstances have on those involved. In short it is one of the best espionage films I have seen in many years.
The film is seen through the perspective of Junior FBI agent Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe). As a young agent still in training his goal was two fold; first to serve his country and second to ascend through the ranks of the agency. It seems that he is on the right track when he is initially assigned to the prestigious counterterrorism surveillance unit. O’Neill doesn’t have to wait long until his career is forced on a much different pathway. He is approached by agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) who informs him that he is being reassigned as a trainee/clerk to senior agent in Information Assurance, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). The actual purpose of this transfer is so O’Neill can ‘monitor’ the activities of his new boss. Hanssen is under suspicion of being a ‘sexual deviant’ and the big bosses want to know if the allegations have any merit. Apparently, Hanssen has been posting pornographic images on the internet. At first the working relationship between the two men is strained. O’Neill really doesn’t want to be there and Hanssen demands a strict formality from his new subordinate. Things begin to light up when Hanssen discovers that O’Neill is a lapsed Catholic. Hanssen is a peripheral member of Opus Dei and sees this as an opportunity to reclaim O’Neill for the church. Soon, Hanssen invites O’Neill and his wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) to mass with his family and even drops by their home for dinner. O’Neill starts to think of Hanssen as a good family man with strong religious ties to the community. When he takes his doubts to Burroughs the real purpose of the surveillance is revealed. The true suspicion focused on Hanssen is not some dirty pictures on the web, it goes much deeper. Hanssen is thought to have been covertly working for the former Soviet Union and now the Russian Republic for almost twenty years. He has been selling U.S. Government secrets in exchange for cash and diamonds. Burroughs and her bosses want to be able to catch Hanssen in the act of treason and espionage. This way they would have the leverage of a potential death penalty to force him to disclose all the details of the Russian spy ring. Hanssen is suspected of causing the deaths of some fifty agents and the loss of billions of dollars so they need him caught. O’Neill has to find the evidence that is need and to do that he must stay close to Hanssen. Unfortunately, this entails using his wife. Since Juliana is a lapsed Lutheran she offers a way in to Hanssen. He was raised Lutheran and converted to Catholicism when he married his wife, Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan).
Director Billy Ray is no stranger to the ‘ripped from the headlines’ genre of film. His previous work, Shattered Glass’ looked at the rapid career decline of an author who fabricated most of his articles. It is difficult to believe that ‘Breach’ is only Ray’s sophomore opus. He has a natural way of telling a story that is engrossing. Here he doesn’t have to give in to the typical Hollywood modus operandi of adding sensationalism to the story. He lets the details of the events and characters stand on their own. While admittedly, this is a dramatization the usual embellishments such as high speed car chases and gun fights are thankfully lacking. This is a battle of wits between a seasoned veteran of the intelligence game and a young apprentice trying to out wit the master. Ray doesn’t give much thought to the motivation behind Hanssen’s betrayal of his country. From the perspective of O’Neill it really doesn’t matter. He wasn’t assigned to find out why Hanssen did what he did, just to prove that he was a traitor. There is some indication of motive with some expository information of his childhood and his frustration in his profession. Still, there are no excuses here. The man betrayed the country that he swore to protect and that is why he is jail for the rest of his life. Ray paces this film in such a way that it never drags. Even though the tension is psychological it is real and leaps off the screen.
This film is a showcase for the considerable acting talents of Chris Cooper. He is perfect for the role. Able to switch between quite menace and convivial grace he commands every scene he appears in. Cooper can do more for a role with his face and body language than most of his peers can do with a well honed script. He can handle the difficult task of showing the audience a man living a covert life even though the audience knows the ending. His mastery of his craft is a wonder to watch and more than carries the film. Ryan Phillippe is at a complicated stage of his career. He has outgrown the trouble teen and angry young man roles and now faces the transition to deeper, more layered roles. He has a way to go based on his portrayal here. His presentation is a bit on the flat side and could have used more substance to connect emotionally with the audience. He has a great deal of potential and roles like this are just what he needs to grow as an actor. I really became a fan of Caroline Dhavernas in her role in the short lived but brilliant television series ‘Wonderfalls’. In this film she gives a performance that is noteworthy for how well she breathes life into her character. She plays her part with empathy and realism.
Universal Studios gives this film the DVD release it so richly deserves. The technical specifications are near reference quality. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is perfect. The color balance is somewhat moody helping to set the tone of the film. The Dolby 5.1 audio provides a rich sound stage that gives a workout to the speakers and excellent channel separation. There are also a plethora of extras to add to your enjoyment. First there is a wonderful audio commentary featuring Bill Ray and the real life Eric O'Neill. The go into the task of bringing a true story to the screen with the care it deserves. Next there is a Dateline episode, ‘The Mole’ that covered this story. There is an in depth profile of Robert Hanssen as well as a featurette that shows how Cooper transformed himself into a man who would betray his nation. Of course, there is a making of featurette that shows just how difficult telling a true story can be. This is an intelligent film that will be sure to capture your interest.