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Solid, Sometimes Stolid, Spy Drama

Inspired by “the greatest security breach in U.S. history,” Breach is an espionage thriller/crime drama that explores the process and procedures necessary to ferret out a traitor and the psychological stress that affects the agents assigned to investigating a traitor in their midst. In this case, the traitor was Robert Hanssen, a Special Agent with the FBI arrested on February, 18, 2001 for espionage. Deceptions, betrayals, and hidden agendas play out against the backdrop of post-Cold War America, only weeks after George W. Bush became the 43rd president of the United States. Co-scripted and directed by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), Breach is short on tension and suspense and long on factual accuracy and verisimilitude.

Young, inexperienced, but eager for advancement, Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a surveillance specialist with the FBI, gets a plum assignment when he’s offered a seemingly minor position as assistant to Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a decorated agent with more than two decades of service in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Hanssen’s superiors have brought him back to Washington, D.C. to lead the newly created Information Assurance Division where Hanssen can put his expertise to work overhauling and securing the FBI’s information storage systems. O’Neill is gradually drawn into Hanssen’s austere lifestyle (a convert to Roman Catholicism, Hanssen goes to mass every day before going to work).

As O’Neill’s wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), begins to suspect, his new assignment isn’t what it seems. O’Neill’s “real” boss, Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), has set him up as Hanssen’s assistant as part of an investigation into Hanssen’s extracurricular activities, e.g., selling classified secrets to the Russians for large sums of money. Burroughs’ hopes O’Neill can find key information about Hanssen’s schemes, but they also need to catch Hanssen in the act of selling government secrets to charge him with espionage.

Even without knowing how the Hanssen case turned out, it doesn’t take too much effort to figure out where Breach is going because we’ve seen it all before. For example, Donnie Brasco, also based on a true story, traced similar trajectories for its two characters, a mid-level gangster in the Italian mafia and the government agent entrusted with ferreting out indictment-worthy information. As in Donnie Brasco, the characters in Breach willingly deceive each other, presumably for purposes noble (i.e., upholding the law) and personal (career advancement), but the end result wears everyone down, regardless of what side of the law they’re on.

Story wise, Breach is all about the mind games played between the FBI, Hanssen, and O’Neill. Ray preferred the slow burn build up to the escalating tension and action we’ve come to expect from espionage thrillers. In fact, calling Breach a “thriller” oversells or misrepresents an otherwise missing element in the movie: suspense. That’s fine in and of itself, but Breach needed more tension, especially in the second half as the tightly wound, repressed Hanssen’s begins to fall apart under the pressure. In addition, Breach gets lost in the minutia of information analysis and stumbles during key moments through oddly developed contrivances or coincidences.

On the plus side, the central question of why Hanssen decided to become a traitor is left only partially answered. Hanssen himself suggests several, but doesn’t choose one, leaving the explanation for his actions for others, including the audience, to decipher for themselves. By opting for psychological complexity (a rarity in mainstream filmmaking), Ray and his co-screenwriters, Adam Mazer and William Rotko, made a solid, even enviable decision. Ray, of course, also benefited from a fine cast, including Chris Cooper (no one does intense introspection better), Laura Linney (adding depth to a limited character), and Ryan Phillippe (well on his way to establishing himself as one of the better actors of his generation).

Ultimately, though, if the pluses manage to outweigh the negatives, it’s only by the slimmest of margins (and due mostly to the cast). Breach comes close to the intelligent, thoughtful drama the filmmakers hoped to achieve when they learned about O’Neill’s seemingly pivotal role in taking Hanssen down and decided to turn three months of his life story into a film. Unfortunately, they fell short, but not by much.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars


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