In February 2001, American politicians of all ideological persuasions came together and acknowledged the great work done by the nation’s intelligence agencies in bringing down Robert Hanssen, a high-ranking agent himself who sold secrets to agents of the Soviet Union and Russia for nearly two decades.
In January 2007, writer-director Billy Ray shared his fictionalized and cinematic version of these events with Chris Cooper in the Hanssen role and Ryan Phillippe playing Eric O’Neill, the ambitious intelligence analyst who suddenly found himself involved in the greatest case in FBI history.
Watching his film, Breach, and reliving this story in May 2018 is a trip. Possible collusion with Russia by an American presidential campaign is the biggest story in the world, and the president in question tweets about it incessantly. Gone are the days, it seems, when those working with Russia did so in the shadows.
There are some similarities between the cases, however. While the president’s sexual dalliance with a porn star may have connections to his or his campaign’s Russian relations, some weird sex shit also brought Hanssen down. In addition to betraying his country, he posted sex stories about his wife on the internet without her knowledge and at least once (per the film) mailed someone a sex tape of him with his wife.
That’s the pretense under which O’Neill is meant to surveil Hanssen. The former reports to Laura Linney, in an underwritten role, who eventually shares with him the truth. It’s a powerful moment in a complicated, well-told story that’s probably forgotten because it lacks a certain cinematic touch, but that’s pretty clearly by Ray’s design.
Breach might be the grayest film of this century. That’s not to say its morals are conflicted—though they are—but rather, everything in the film is gray and dulled. Washington—so beautiful and picturesque in the springtime with its endless sea of cherry blossoms—is, in the wintertime, a wash of intimidating white buildings. The FBI interiors are soul-suckingly nondescript. The only change of decoration occurs when a new president’s and attorney general’s portrait is hung on the wall. Ten years later, we seem to flip out over films with striking cinematography that are otherwise uninspired—like Blade Runner 2049, which just flopped around for three hours in a sea of pretty colors. Breach is the opposite—tight, compact, tense, and gray AF.
O’Neill’s struggle to do his job when he feels a certain loyalty to Hanssen is especially interesting. It’s a shame a more capable actor than Phillippe wasn’t cast in the role. It seems like we were still trying to make that whole thing happen in early 2007, but he’s just not that great here, and it’s not hard to think of a half dozen actors of a similar profile and age at that time who would have truly excelled in this film—I mean, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both had career-best work just a few months earlier playing undercover parts in The Departed.
For all Phillippe’s shortcomings, Chris Cooper is brilliant and conveys Hanssen as a guy who really seemed to buy into his own hype and now doesn’t know what’s real or not in his life. He seems to enjoy secretly holding his crimes over those above him at the Bureau. When he walks passed the reserved parking spaces of Director Louis Freeh and others, there’s a glint in his eye that makes it clear he thinks his accomplishments—legality and morality be damned—are more impressive than theirs, and while that means he toils away in a windowless office, it’s the life and career he’s chosen.
Breach isn’t a groundbreaking film, but if not for its real-life origins, it could be straight out of a LeCarre novel, and to that end, it belongs in the company of the screen adaptations of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Ray’s filmmaking doesn’t set the world on fire, but his storytelling sensibilities are very strong, and as far as seemingly disposable January thrillers go, it’s as good as it gets.
Verdict: Unfairly forgotten.