The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Breach

Reviewed by Kevin Pearson.

Director Billy Ray
Length 110 mins
Certificate 12
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Everything starts out well for Eric O’Neil. A candidate for promotion to agent in the FBI, he is working surveillance jobs. Suddenly pulled out, it seems his road to promotion may be lost. He is moved into the bureau to work a clerk job and follow the movements of an FBI agent suspected of sexual indecency. However, at first a merely peep job, his assignment quickly becomes taking down the most damaging spy in U.S. history.

This is the set up to Breach, a true story of the takedown of agent Robert Hanssen who was convicted in 2001 for spying and sentenced to life in prison. That the film uses a young character who isn’t even an FBI agent as the figure for the takedown sounds like make believe: when Silence of the Lambs (1991) had academy-trainee Clarice Starling assigned to the case of ‘Buffalo Bill’, real FBI agents balked at the likelihood of it ever happening. However, the story here is true and the portrait and its details are deft in their accuracy.

Breach is an authentic character drama, and the credit for this goes mainly to the writing and to an amazing performance by Chris Cooper. The film understands that the set up is perfect for a generic suspense, but hones it in to focus on the characters to give them a context. Robert Hanssen is portrayed as an egomaniac who has been with the agency longer than most, and so knows all the pitfalls that younger agents are susceptible to making. A constant critic of his own agency, Hanssen shows surprising respect to the dedication of the Russians, but faults them for being a godless society. Hanssen takes his religious beliefs with him everywhere and faults others for lack of belief. The belief he has in his religious dedication, along with his intelligence, gives him the confidence to ignore what it is he is doing.

Chris Cooper, who plays Hanssen, is an actor of control and subtlety who has carried a unique voice and presence through all his work. In minimal roles he plays confidence and arrogance with ease; in deeper roles, he also plays angst and sadness very well. Breach allows him to take on a character that combines everything of his personality and mesh it with the best of his talent. He also modifies his usual subtlety: here every part of his body is alive all the time. He combines his usual practice of method acting with an outward focus on body movement popular in British theatre. The result is an amazing performance of true inhabitance.

Conversely, Ryan Phillippe plays the agent in training who traps Hanssen; the best he can hope to do is play the role with sincerity, and he barely accomplishes even this. Billy Ray is the director and co-writer. Before making Breach, he made the underappreciated Shattered Glass (2003). Both these films are accomplished efforts of control and an excellence of focus. Breach certainly isn’t a film that redefines its genre, but is an accomplished work, and a rare opportunity to see a great actor at the top of his game.

This review was published on April 03, 2007.

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