Spy movies come in many breeds; some are action packed thrillers featuring tuxedo clad agents with complex gadgets. Some feature cloaks, daggers, double crosses and intrigue. Breach is actually quite unique from these types of fictional spy thrillers in its own modest way. In fact it more closely resembles the business intrigue of director Billy Ray’s previous film, 2003’s above average Shattered Glass.
The film tells the true story of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young FBI employee in the computer intelligence division. O’Neill hopes to be promoted to agent, but first he must take a special assignment to be an assistant to Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a veteran agent who the FBI says is under suspicion of being a sexual deviant. O’Neill is asked to spy on Hanssen and dig up as much dirt as he can on Hanssen before his activities are discovered and cause embarrassment for the bureau. To O’Neill’s surprise, Hanssen (who is pushing sixty) seems like a squeaky clean individual; a devout catholic who goes to church daily, doesn’t drink, and doesn’t cheat on his wife; hardly the behavior of a deviant. When he confronts the agent who gave him the assignment (Laura Linney) he learns that Robert Hanssen’s corruption goes much deeper than sexual deviance.
Chris Cooper is most definitely the main attraction here, Cooper (who won an Oscar for his supporting performance in Spike Jonzes Adaptation) is a great actor who doesn’t get many chances to really carry movies and truly develop a character. Cooper is terrific here in what may be the best performance I’ve seen all year. Ryan Philleppe is solid but unremarkable, he doesn’t hurt the film but he seems pretty lightweight compared to Cooper’s Oscar worthy acting. Cooper is interestingly in one of those supporting performances that feel like leads. Like 2006’s The Last King of Scottland, Breach looks at a complicated figure from the perspective of a simple character.
Perhaps part of why this true story works it that it is internal and took place in a time of peace and thus wasn’t classified beyond comprehension. Unlike last year’s The Good Sheppard which felt like nothing more than elaborate guesswork about decades worth of deeply classified spycraft, Breach feels like a very accurate representation of the events surrounding Robert Hanssen. The film is a dramatized movie, it never feels like a recreation, but it also never feels like total fiction. This believability helps keep Breach down to Earth, which is a very good thing. The film never stoops to sensationalism; in fact it doesn’t even try to be a thriller. This is no James Bond movie, nor is it a Ludlum, Clancy, or le Carré movie for that matter. Breach isn’t even a thriller for that matter; the film is really a dramatic character study that happens to be set in the intelligence community.
The fact that the film stays grounded is what prevents it from going off the tracks, but its also what keeps the film from flirting with greatness. The film never risks anything and pulls many of its punches. Breach will never be a classic but its well worth seeing.
***1/2 out of four