Chris Cooper as Robert Hanssen
Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill
Laura Linney as Kate Burroughs
Caroline Dharvernas as Juliana O’Neill
Directed by Billy Ray
Sophisticated thriller lacks excitement and occasionally veers off course, but remains buoyed by brilliant performances and solid storytelling.
After being assigned to tail an FBI Intel agent accused of misconduct, Eric O’Neill discovers that he has become a part of a massive inquiry into the agent’s history as a possible spy.
After tackling the tale of fraud reporter Stephen Glass in 2003’s smart, industry savvy drama, “Shattered Glass,” director Billy Ray finally delivers his second feature, “Breach,” a murkier retelling of the true life saga of Robert Hanssen, long time FBI mole and seller of American secrets.
Chris Cooper turns in a stone-faced yet subtly expressive performance as Hanssen. The man prides himself on being a conservative, patriotic, church going American, but secretly wrestles with treacherous proclivities. Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) recruits up and coming FBI rookie Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) to keep tabs on Hanssen as a result of complaints regarding his supposed personal deviances, but O’Neill soon learns that it is really Hanssen’s traitorous ways that got him the gig. What he thought was just a run of the mill assignment is actually one of the biggest investigations in FBI history.
Cooper is a perfect fit for the role of Hanssen. Every detail, from his withering stares down to the awkward way he smiles, feels so authentically human that Hanssen’s monstrous legacy gets duly transformed into a functional, relatable human. Even when the script fails him, Cooper excels at capturing the mood and feel of the character, turning small moments and throwaway lines of dialogue into bits of personal revelation. The same can be said of Linney who has limited screen time and ample dialogue burdened by clunky exposition. Fortunately, she can find passion in just about anything. The desire Kate feels to finally catch Hanssen in the act emanates from her even while silent. When she achieves her inevitable victory in the film’s final act, the quiet, beautiful expression of gratitude on Linney’s face fills in any gaps of information we might have about her marginally used character and transforms her into a whole person, understandable in every way. The only disappointing performance in the film is that of Phillippe who handles himself well enough but too often seems to pout and holler rather than actually emote. Watching scenes between him and his honorable costars often feels like an exercise in the Do’s and Don’ts of acting. Shot: Laura Linney, eyes searing with ferocity, her rage quieted by her neutral expression. Reverse Shot: Ryan Phillippe scowling blankly. It is quite a painfully obvious contrast in talent, distracting even.
Phillippe is not the only flaw here, though. In truth, “Breach” can be a monotonous meandering mess of a movie at times. However, it surely can be fascinating as well. Cooper and Linney work to insure their characters are nuanced, dramatically rich beings that demand the most attention possible from our pensive minds. It is Ray’s decisions that really baffle me. He is a sure-handed, straightforward director who gives the film a sleek look and creative integrity (no unneeded explosions, car chases, or other inauthentic thriller clichés). Still, “Breach” does seem designed to be a thriller, making his decision to expose the film’s outcome in the opening scene a mystery to me. All the suspense dissipates from the movie’s many scenes depicting Hanssen’s potential discovery of O’Neill’s betrayal. They now come with the knowledge that Hanssen will be safely arrested in the end. For that reason, “Breach” is really a twistless thriller that lags in parts and excels most often during dramatic scenes.
The film works better as a drama than as a thriller due mostly to the work of Cooper whose vicious yet likable Hanssen is the dark heart of this film. Hanssen is the best type of movie sociopath: the kind that can kill someone in one minute and kindly play catch with his grandson in the next minute all while attributing his behaviors to a love of God and love of country. I actually think the film would have benefited greatly had Ray sided more closely with Hanssen. The trick of the performance is that we know what Hanssen has done and yet we cannot help but see the person on the surface, the one who seems like a decent guy. Had we gotten to spend time exploring the hypocritical hell of Hanssen’s mind more closely, the film might have been much better. Phillippe can’t carry a movie just yet and despite the talent of Caroline Dhavernas, who plays O’Neill’s wife, Juliana, the family drama between the two is practically a dead end dramatically. How are we supposed to care about spousal bickering when there is a twisted traitor on the loose with a psyche worth investigating? The whole production feels padded to fit a formula. Add a tortured romance, take out too much talk of death, make it funny here and there, and in the end you have a mid-level thriller, right? The only satisfaction to be found in this is that Ray did manage to protect its talky, dialogue heavy core. He has clearly found a more mainstream approach to storytelling since his last film but he has kept a fair amount of his creative spirit alive.
I actually did enjoy this film for the quality of its story and the generally smart choices it made in terms of believability. This is a subdued thriller and while it does lag sometimes, there is enough dramatic story to compensate for the lack of intense excitement. What is really not to be missed here is Cooper’s performance, which elevates this film from a mediocre thriller into something worth seeing. He creates an eerie, haunting soul that is both horrifying and completely sympathetic.
The Bottom Line:
Despite its flaws and inconsistent quality, this is still an enjoyable film strengthened by amazing performances and kept grounded by Ray’s honest integrity. This is not the best movie you’ll see this year, but it is a decent piece of work.