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

Written by Kevin Pearson.

Photo from the article The more acclaim Breach gets, the better. When it was released recently in the US, the film went under the radar. In the United States it opened wide in February but had little press coverage and only was seen in larger cities. Trailers made the movie look like a thriller in the vein of the Bourne movies. Most critics liked it, but none truly raved about it. Then, when more cities eventually got the film, it was already a month into release and no longer on anyone’s radar. This is the position in which I am forced to review it. Breach will not win any awards nor appear on many top ten lists, but it should be noted.

The underwhelming response not only has to do with the lackluster promotion, but also has to do with its subject matter. When Richard Ashcroft announced in 2001 that the FBI had arrested Robert Hanssen for spying, the press took notice but the public yawned. This was the announcement of the greatest American spy ever finally being captured but still, no one really cared. The reason is that Hanssen was a spy for the Russians in a time when the Cold War was no longer relevant. Hanssen did spy up until he was captured, but little consideration was given to what he really compromised in the time after the Cold War.

Breach is not interested in the historical or political history and does little to relate these aspects to the audience so they can really understand the importance of its events. The film is a modest drama of the events that lead up to the arrest of Robert Hanssen. To be a character study is not a detriment, but to make Ryan Phillippe the protagonist, who is the eyes for the audience into the world of Hanssen, is. The work of Chris Cooper is so good and imaginative that the film suffers from not having such acting talent all around. Laura Linney does quality work, but to cast Phillippe as Eric O’Neil is to keep Breach from being the complex character study it could have been. The decision must have been taken in order to make the film appealing to the average moviegoer who may be scared off by a diligent drama and need the comfort of an attractive young star.

There is also, however, something unique about Breach. Because the film is focused purely on the timeline of a real situation, there is an assumption that the movie is comprised only of details. Zodiac (2007) was unique in the crime investigation genre for the interest it took in its details, and Breach is similar in its painting a vivid picture of FBI life that likely has more legitimacy than most films on the subject. These details are very dense in the film: entire scenes revolve around the nature of office politics in FBI headquarters. The approach is matter-of-fact, but in a different way than is Zodiac. That film focused on how the details of an investigation always loom over the investigators and haunt them, but ended up not as a character study, but as a study of the investigation itself. Breach is a film about the evolution of Robert Hanssen from confidence to destruction, and as such, is an entirely character-driven film.

The way the story unfolds illustrates the ways in which the film is a character portrait. Eric O’Neil is first told to follow Robert Hanssen under the guise that he is a sexual deviant; nothing more is told to him. The audience already knows he is a traitor, but they do not know if this accusation is also true. O’Neil begins to doubt the suspicion as it becomes evident that Hanssen leads a pristine life but ruffles feathers in headquarters because of his constant criticism of bureau policy. The suggestion is that his antagonism is the true reason for the investigation. When O’Neil is finally told the entire truth, the downward spiral begins for Hanssen. The investigation picks up speed and begins to apply more pressure, meaning that O’Neil is asked to compromise himself more to dig for harder evidence against him. His suspicions increase and he begins to doubt the faith of everyone around him. Certain situations become suspenseful through the question of whether Hanssen will find out the truth about his new clerk, but such small moments hold little interest: the fascination is watching Hanssen’s gradual breakdown.

Chris Cooper takes on the role with force. Doing more than just playing arrogance at the beginning, he shuffles with his character in all manners. Hanssen doesn’t give orders to O’Neil at standstill, but while continuously pacing and moving. The motion that Cooper focuses on at the beginning becomes key to his character, as he becomes suspicious of O’Neil and has little idea of what to make of him. As the film goes on, however, he begins to show visible ease with the situation and with O’Neil. Cooper understands the nature of discomfort and anxiety, and how to bring them out in a performance. When Anthony Hopkins played Nixon in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film of the same name, Hopkins gave life to his character by focusing on all the mannerisms that suggested discomfort. The filmmakers did little to make Hopkins look like Nixon, but allowed him to give a detailed performance of gestures and physical ticks. Cooper also has this natural gift of a performer - that of suiting a role to his best available abilities. He has been frequently acted in films that have required similar roles of him, from The Bourne Identity (2002) to Syriana (2005). He takes the central crux of those roles - an authoritarian in crisis - and fleshes it out in Breach.

Billy Ray is the director. The writer of many screenplays dating back to the mid 90s, he made his debut a few years ago with Shattered Glass (2003). That film was the biography of Stephen Glass, a writer for The New Republic who was writing news articles for the magazine but fabricating entire scenarios for the basis of his pieces. When he was discovered the scandal destroyed his career and also hurt the prestige of a magazine that was considered one of the best culture magazines in the United States. As the protagonist of that film, Glass was young and confident, whilst exhibiting signs of delusion and a childlike need to feel accepted. Breach is about a similar deception and thus continues Ray’s quality work by not simplifying its issues, ultimately allowing psychological insights into the central character to be reached.

This Alternate Take was published on April 18, 2007.

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