Review: Breach (2007)

Breach (2007)

Directed by: Billy Ray | 110 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Davison, Jonathan Watton, Tom Barnett, Jonathan Potts, David Huband, Catherine Burdon, Scott Gibson, Courtenay J. Stevens, Clare Stone, Jonathan Keltz, Richard Fitzpatrick, Melissa Thomson, Craig Eldridge, Jonathon Whittaker, Reagan Pasternak, Mary Jo Deschanel

Above average, but somewhat dull thriller with a starring role for Chris Cooper as FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was exposed as a traitor in February 2001. Director Billy Ray, who made his debut with ‘Shattered Glass’ in 2003, seems to be interested here – just as in the aforementioned film – in stories in which deception and a web of lies play a role in both controversial and true stories.

The absolute star of the film is Chris Cooper, who adds another memorable role to his impressive resume. His Robert Hanssen is a mismatched puzzle piece in both his social and work environment. Not the most ideal boss at work, he’s a suspicious loner who has little to do with his co-workers and unfit O’Neill, and who seems especially obsessed with the FBI’s flawed technology security. In his social environment, he doesn’t seem to be able to express himself well and tries too hard to come across as perfect. It’s nice of Cooper that he has something creepy about him, without you being able to put your finger on what exactly is wrong with his personality. This is also experienced by the young, ambitious aspiring cop Eric O’Neill, who is appointed as his assistant. Ryan Phillippe takes on that role, but can’t compete with Cooper at all. He is unable to portray his crucial role convincingly enough, so that you would never believe that he managed to deceive the crafty Hanssen for months.

O’Neill was ordered to keep Hanssen’s eye on his superiors for “sexual abnormalities”. Only later is he told how the fork really is and that the FBI suspects him of espionage and treason. It turns out that there is an entire unit of more than 50 people on the case, led by FBI agents Plesac (Dennis Haysbert, best known for “24”) and Burroughs (Laura Linney). The latter is O’Neill’s direct contact, but she doesn’t make it easy for the inexperienced officer-in-training. O’Neill’s relationship with his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) does not improve when Hanssen and his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan) also intrude into their personal lives. The case of Robert Hanssen is explosive and extremely interesting, given the political and international consequences. After all, being bombed to become the greatest spy in American history is no small feat. Enough to deliver a chilling and haunting thriller, even if the outcome is known to the viewer.

Both the strength and the weakness of the film is the everyday normality, perhaps even banality, that ‘Breach’ radiates. On the one hand, scenes where, on the surface, hardly anything happens, it is shown how a slightly creepy executive in a government bureaucracy treats a subordinate, whom he slowly comes to regard as a protégé. The bitterness Hanssen feels at being misunderstood and undervalued by FBI leadership may not make him all that different from thousands of other officials.

It is precisely this that leads to uncomfortable thoughts about Hanssen’s vision of patriotism and loyalty, which he repeatedly emphasizes. On the other hand, it is precisely this ‘normality’ that ensures that the fact that such far-reaching matters are involved hardly gets through. It never gets really exciting and compelling enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. And that, given the state secrets and US national security at stake, is a shortcoming. But the film is saved for the sublime playing of Cooper and for that reason alone it is recommended.

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