A sophisticated spy thriller directed by Billy Ray, Breach creates suspense through intense dialogue exchanges and strong character development, thus avoiding big explosions, repetitive gunfights, and wild car chases.
The film is 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. The events depicted in Breach are the ones that led up to Hanssen’s arrest on Feb. 18, 2001.
At first, we are introduced to FBI newcomer Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who is 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.
But O’Neill 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.
With the assistance of co-screenwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko, writer-director 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 intense head-to-head battle between stars Cooper and Phillippe is what makes Breach such a dazzling cinematic experience.
Robert Hanssen is portrayed as a complex character, both intriguing and evil. He doesn’t drink and he 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 showing the audience both Hanssen’s strengths and weaknesses.
Ryan Phillippe, for his part, positively surprises with a solid performance as Eric O’Neill, whose cleverness overcomes his naiveté and drives 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.
Breach, however, does not 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, and it examines the reasons for the actions of its characters. Hanssen’s motivations end up lacking substance, but the portrayal of O’Neill’s doubts and personal life is sharp.
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 or 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 generate a series of unique and nail-biting moments.
Within its U.S. government setting, Billy Ray has crafted a smart and intriguing thriller that revolves around the importance of trust, the danger of betrayal, and the power of religious beliefs. Breach is a strong film, supported by a strong script and equally strong performers.
© Franck Tabouring.
Breach (2007). Dir.: Billy Ray. Scr.: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, and Billy Ray. Cast: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole, Kathleen Quinlan, Dennis Haysbert, Bruce Davison