- Breach (2007) movie review: Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper deliver commanding performances in Billy Ray’s first-rate spy thriller based on actual events.
Breach movie review: Billy Ray’s upscale spy thriller offers plenty of suspense + quality performances
Director and co-screenwriter Billy Ray’s sophisticated spy thriller Breach creates suspense through its dialogue and characters, thus avoiding big explosions, repetitive gunfights, and wild car chases.
Based on the true story of FBI agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a traitor who provoked one of the biggest security breaches in U.S. history by leaking top-secret information to the Soviet Union (and later Russia), Breach depicts the events that led to Hanssen’s arrest in February 2001.
At first, we are introduced to FBI newcomer Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), hired by the bureau to pose as Hanssen’s new assistant. O’Neill is asked to monitor Hanssen’s every move and report back to a tactical unit (led by Laura Linney) that is attempting to bring him down.
O’Neill, however, quickly falls victim to Hanssen’s expertise in manipulating people. Not only does he come to admire the man he is supposed to investigate but he also makes mistakes that could compromise both his cover and his mission.
Stellar Chris Cooper & Ryan Phillippe
With the assistance of co-screenwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko, Billy Ray, whose 2003 drama Shattered Glass was warmly received by critics, does an excellent job at keeping the thriller’s focus on the relationship between his two main characters. In fact, the head-to-head battle between stars Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe is what makes Breach such a dazzling cinematic experience.
Robert Hanssen is portrayed as a person who is both intriguing and evil. He doesn’t drink and goes to church every day, but he also has bizarre sexual fantasies and a whole array of dark secrets. The excellent Chris Cooper does an extraordinary job in conveying both Hanssen’s strengths and weaknesses.
Ryan Phillippe, for his part, positively surprises with a solid performance as Eric O’Neill, whose cleverness eventually overcomes his naiveté, driving him to exploit Hanssen’s flaws in order to ensnare him. From a dramatic standpoint, the scenes depicting O’Neill’s strategic use of Hanssen’s preoccupation with religion are particularly effective.
But Breach doesn’t deal solely with the psychological warfare between two FBI agents. It also explores the different attitudes of the Bureau’s heads as they do their best to save face while examining the reasons for the actions of some of its personnel. Hanssen’s motivations end up lacking substance, but the portrayal of O’Neill’s doubts and personal life is sharp.
In breaking away from the conventions of mainstream action flicks, Breach creates a subtle style of suspense – one that requires no gunfire or over-the-top stunts. Fancy visuals and excessive play with editing technology are out; and frankly, Breach needs none of that to triumph. Thus, scenes involving a palm pilot and a verbal confrontation in a traffic jam are able to generate a series of nail-biting moments.
In all, within the film’s U.S. government setting Billy Ray has crafted a smart, intriguing thriller about trust, betrayal, and the power of religious beliefs. Breach is a strong film, supported by a strong script and equally strong performers.
Director: Billy Ray.
Screenplay: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, and Billy Ray.
From a screen story by Mazer & Rotko.
Cast: Chris Cooper. Ryan Phillippe. Laura Linney. Caroline Dhavernas. Gary Cole. Kathleen Quinlan. Dennis Haysbert. Bruce Davison. Jonathan Watton. Tom Barnett. Mary Jo Deschanel.
“Breach Movie: Accomplished Leads in Sophisticated Spy Thriller” review text © Franck Tabouring; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Breach Movie (2007) Review” endnotes
Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe Breach movie image: Universal Pictures.
“Breach Movie: Accomplished Leads in Sophisticated Spy Thriller” last updated in September 2021.