On February of 2001, FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested for selling secrets to the Russians for over twenty years. His treason was labeled by the Department of Justice as, "…possibly the worst intelligence disaster of US history." Being a film based on a true story, "Breach" has a somewhat foregone conclusion counting against it. Anybody who has seen the news likely knows that Hanssen was caught and arrested. In addition, the film begins with footage of John Ashcroft announcing Hanssen's capture. We might know how everything turns out, but "Breach" is so well-done that there's still a sense of suspense.
Chalk that up to an extremely talented cast with Chris Cooper's performance as Hanssen as the glue that holds the film together. Billy Ray's direction isn't notably stylistic, but it's strong and is heavily influenced by the dramatic thrillers of the 1970's. You can easily see echoes of films like "All the President's Men" or "3 Days of the Condor." Having previously directed "Shattered Glass", Ray firmly proves that he's more than adept at making these true-life films centering on a fall from grace.
Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is a trainee at the FBI looking to shoot up the ladder and make agent in record time. He gets more than he bargained for when a higher-up, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), assigns him the task of surveying Hanssen as his new aide. Hanssen is two months from retirement and is called back to the States to head the new Information Assurances Department. Ironically, Hanssen's job was to correct security breaches in the bureau's computer systems. O'Neill must juggle the actual work of an IT specialist with spying on Hanssen, along with keeping his marriage to his wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas of "Wonderfalls" fame), afloat.
Originally, O'Neill is told by Burroughs that Hanssen is a "sexual deviant." He posts intimate details about his wife on the internet and mails sex tapes of them in bed to other people. O'Neill's relationship with Hanssen is icy from the start and only slowly does it ever slightly thaws. Hanssen is extremely curt and gruff, but eventually becomes a mentor to the young O'Neill. In the meantime, O'Neill finds Hanssen to be a straight-shooter who doesn't go for any of the political games that come with the intelligence community. O'Neill sees Hanssen as a loving husband and a devout Catholic. They regularly attend church together. How can this man possibly be some sort of pervert? Hanssen's carnal proclivities are the least of his problems when O'Neill is exposed to the truth. Hanssen's betrayal has cost the United States billions of dollars and, perhaps, hundreds of lives.
While O'Neill is the lead protagonist, it is Hanssen that is the true star of the film. Cooper's performance is simply fascinating. He can be truly menacing in a subtle manner without ever needing to raise his voice. Cooper's Hanssen is often times stoic, frightening, and eccentric. He's someone who isn't in the game for the money. Nor is he in this to aid the men he frequently calls, "Godless communists." No, Hanssen turns traitor to show just how much smarter he is than the people who think so little of him.
I haven't thought much of Phillippe before, but his portrayal of Eric O'Neill is well-done, partly thanks to being able to play off the amazing Chris Cooper. He easily conveys the transformation of O'Neill from eager upstart to someone completely overwhelmed by the situation. You can feel the weight of his internal struggle at keeping secrets from his wife and using Hanssen's own religious fervor against him. Laura Linney heads an assortment of great supporting actors that include Dennis Haysbert, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Cole, and Bruce Davison.
One of the few problems I had with the film is the subplot between O'Neill and his wife. While both actors do fine work in playing the embattled couple, the B-story sometimes feels forced. The scenes between Hanssen and O'Neill are so powerful and captivating that the film loses some of its momentum when it veers off-course to deal with other matters.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is pristine and the colors are all strong. It is high quality and shows off the excellent cinematography of Tak Fujimoto.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 with an optional dubbed French language track. This is a dialogue heavy film and every word comes off crisp and clear, while never being overwhelmed by Mychael Danna's score.
In my opinion, the centerpiece of the bonus materials is the commentary track by Billy Ray and the real-life Eric O'Neill. This is one of the best commentary tracks I've had the pleasure of listening to. The pair, in great detail, discusses the making of the film along with how the events truly unfolded compared to what is seen on screen.
Breaching the Truth is a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with interviews by the cast and crew. It isn't very involving, but is a bit above the level of the standard EPK featurette.
Anatomy of a Character focuses on Chris Cooper's portrayal of Hanssen and is similar in tone to Breaching the Truth.
The Mole is an in-depth news segment originally aired on "Dateline." This is a fascinating look at the real Hanssen and the methods he used to provide information to the Russians and avoid detections.
Rounding out the features is a collection of deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary by Ray and editor Jeffrey Ford.
As a spy film, "Breach" isn't a shoot ‘em up, fists a-flying affair like "The Bourne Identity" or "Casino Royale." It's a realistic look at espionage that is tighter than the bloated "The Good Shepherd." One of the best sequences in the film follows Phillippe's O'Neill struggling to remember which briefcase pouch Hanssen's purloined PDA belongs in. It seems like a simple scene, but it will still bring you to the edge of your seat. "Breach" was released into theaters early in the year amidst the anemic films of January and February. It is probable that the film will not be remembered come awards season. That would be a shame as it is a tense thriller and features a wonderful performance from Chris Cooper.