© 2007 Ray Wong
Based on the true story of one of the nation's greatest security breaches, writer-director Billy Ray sets out to capture the tension and anxiety of the cat-and-mouse game revolving around ex-FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
FBI upstart Eric O'Neill (Phillippe) gets his chance of making agent when he's recruited by Kate Burroughs (Linney) in an investigation. The target is a veteran agent, Robert Hanssen (Cooper), who has served for almost 25 years. O'Neill is recruited for his ambition, calmness, and quick thinking. Agent Burroughs tells him they're suspecting Hanssen as a sexual deviant.
Soon, O'Neill comes to respect and admire Hanssen for his devotion to his job, his family, and his faith. In turn, he also gains the trust of Hanssen, a man who really doesn't trust anyone. When O'Neill confronts Burroughs and argues that he doesn't believe Hanssen is a sexual deviant and he's not right for the job, Burroughs reveals that Hanssen actually is a spy and has been selling classified information to the Soviets (now Russians) resulting in millions in losses as well as lives. As the greatest security breach in U.S. history weighing on him, O'Neill must decide whether to fulfill his duty, and if so, how he's going to outsmart Hanssen.
Chris Cooper (Syriana) is an extraordinary thespian and one wonders why he hasn't won an Oscar already. Here, his performance is pitch-perfect and shows tremendous humanity, turmoil, vulnerability and hurt while playing someone who is supposed to be despicable. Somehow, Cooper makes us care about Robert Hanssen even when we know he deserves what he gets at the end.
In comparison, Ryan Phillippe (Flags of Our Fathers) is too lightweight for the role of someone who achieves what no others could. Granted, the point of his character is that he's an inexperienced rookie who gets past Hanssen's suspicion exactly because he is lightweight and insignificant. Yet, Phillippe has an annoying habit of being expressionless. We don't really know if he's angry, scared, concerned, or nervous. Also, his performance is too low-key, even in highly tense scenarios, to make a solid impact.
With the exception of Laura Linney (Man of the Year), the supporting cast has not much to do. Linney is very solid in her pivotal role as the brain behind the stint operation. As fellow agents, Dennis Haysbert (Jarhead) has a presence, and Gary Cole (Talladega Nights) serves as somewhat a comic relief. Kathleen Quinlan (The Hills Have Eyes) is amiable as Hannsen's unsuspecting, religious wife Bonnie, and Caroline Dhavernas (Hollywoodland) is wonderful as O'Neill's concerned wife Julianna.
Billy Ray (Flightplan) and his protégés have written a taut psychological thriller with some intriguing insights, tight suspense, and good, old-fashioned cat-and-mouse drama. The events unfold logically, and they seem to have a great time speculating and developing Robert Hanssen's character. We also get a glimpse of who Eric O'Neill is. Unfortunately, with the focus on the two leading men, the support characters are reduced to cardboard. The dialogue serves its job to move the plot along.
Billy Ray does a good job keeping the pace tight and the suspense taut. As a psychological thriller, the film is light on action but heavy on character interactions. There are some key scenes with many things going on, creating great nail-biting moments and make us squirm in our seats: How will Eric O'Neill pull this one off? The final confrontation is a bit of a letdown, however, even though Chris Cooper is fascinating to watch. We wonder how a man like him would become so messed up. They get away with it by stating that "once we get the what and how, the why doesn't really matter, does it?"
I do find the story lacks certain credibility. I know it's based on a true story and Eric O'Neill did help bring down Hanssen. I keep asking, though, how could someone like Hanssen be so trusting of O'Neill, even when he has doubts and is paranoid about everyone around him. A spy like him would do everything he could to ensure his survival -- he wouldn't invite someone he barely knows into his house, allows him to snoop around. And how silly it is for O'Neill to investigate anything without even wearing gloves.
The filmmakers want us to believe that Hanssen trusts O'Neill because he is just too lightweight to register as a threat, and that they share a common faith. But I'm still not buying it, especially with Ryan Phillippe's lukewarm performance. Someone dramatically more substantial, such as Toby McGuire or Jake Gyllenhaal, would have helped convince me.
Still, Breach is a well-crafted, intriguing suspense that has a true resonance to our reality. People like Robert Hanssen cost us money, lives, and liberty. If only Billy Ray had tightened up the plot and cast a better actor as O'Neill, the film would not be such a breach of our suspension of disbelief.
Stars: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Charoline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison
Director: Billy Ray
Writers: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, sexual content, language
Running Time: 110 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 7.0 out of 10