Hollywood has the ability to oversimplify anything for the purposes of cramming it into a two-hour presentation. Complex ideas and characters are reduced to an archetypical level that would make Joseph Campbell mourn. So when a film or a performance suddenly stands out for making things intentionally and justifiably complex, people take notice. Breach is one of those complexities worth noticing, taking the true story behind the largest American security breach and really graying the lines between the concepts of “good” and “evil”. This sort of moral ambiguity and murky portrayal of treason is particularly impressive to see in a film coming out in these post-9/11, “dangerously patriotic” times.
True espionage stories can be bland and quite unentertaining. Last year’s The Good Shepherd showed us what real life espionage was like. It’s not a James Bond type character charming the ladies and using cool gadgets to get away and save the day. It’s paperwork. It’s a lot of time where nothing really happens, waiting for those rare moments that pay off with valuable information or resources. If a movie is going to tell a true story of espionage, it has to have solid, interesting characters to balance out the lack of pizzazz. The Good Shepherd didn’t. Breach, on the other hand, does.
Breach focuses on Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillippe), a young man in the Federal Bureau of Investigations who is pushing to become an agent. Instead of the brash upstart character, O’Neil is portrayed as quite a nice guy. He credits his partners when he submits proposals for upgrades to FBI systems instead of taking all the credit for himself and potentially getting on a faster track. He honestly cares about serving his country, so it is with trepidation that he accepts a new assignment as an office clerk for Robert Hanssen, a former American spy on the Soviet Union.
At first O’Neil is told his assignment is to keep an eye on Hanssen due to the former agent’s sexual deviancy. The portrayal of Hanssen by Chris Cooper seems appropriately creepy for a sexual deviant at first. He doesn’t say much, keeping to himself and passing judgment on just about everyone he encounters. The first confrontation between O’Neil and Hanssen is unsettling, with Hanssen sizing up the rookie clerk solely with his eyes. Not much else needs to be said.
O’Neil begins to doubt his assignment as he gets to know Hanssen, however. He can’t find any proof of any deviancy. Despite constant checking, there is no history of Hanssen visiting the alleged websites and communities he’s supposed to be a part of. In fact, Hanssen is a strong practicing Catholic with a wife and kids who love him. He even goes out of his way to help Eric with his own family problems and starts mentoring him on the bureaucracy of the FBI and how to attain his desired position as an agent. Other than just being a bit creepy and a bit socially awkward, Hanssen seems like a good enough of a guy. That’s when O’Neil finds out the true reason for the investigation: Robert Hanssen is a traitor, selling American secrets and information to enemies as a double agent.
Breach is a great example of how to build a movie off of great characters, and even greater actors. There isn’t a weak performance here, and both the script and actors make these characters interesting people that we want to learn more about or see in action. Laura Linney and Ryan Phillippe both play characters with some considerable depth to them. Similarly lost, Linney’s Kate Burroughs wants Hanssen locked up because his treachery undoes the good work of her career and Eric wants to serve his country, but begins to question what that entails as his job begins to separate him from those who he loves. Even some of the smaller parts get a nice complexity in the hands of capable actors like Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert.
The true crowning achievement of the film, however, is the handling of Robert Hanssen. It would have been very easy in this era to turn Hanssen into an over the top villain; someone who revels in the damage he’s creating in his disloyalty for his country. Hell, a presentation like that could almost be unifying for the audience. Instead Chris Cooper gives Hanssen a wonderful depth that is simultaneously sinister and sympathetic. For a man responsible for the largest act of treason the country has ever seen, there is a lot of good within Cooper’s presentation of Hanssen. There isn’t an overt “good” or “bad” quality given to the character by the script, but the life that Cooper gives the man simply with the performance of his eyes is the stuff acting legends are made of. There is no effort to justify why a good Catholic and family man is betraying his country so – in fact, the rationale behind that is barely explored, but Cooper’s performance shows us that the decision isn’t an easy one, nor is it without internal conflict throughout Hanssen’s life.
Co-writer/Director Billy Ray creates an interesting feel for the movie – one of tension and constant suspicion. At first we wonder if Hanssen truly is the pervert he’s accused of being and his attitude helps build that suspicion. Later comes the suspicion and tension that truly builds an espionage picture – will O’Neil get caught or get the needed evidence? Some of this comes from the assembly of the movie from the script to the final edit. The majority, however, comes from Ray letting the actors carry the weight of the situation they are in and play off each other. It takes a good director to know when to interfere with a movie’s progression and when to stay out of the way and here Ray shows he has the potential to be a fantastic director just by letting the actors do their jobs.
If Breach isn’t the best picture of the year, it will certainly be the most overlooked one. With a miserable February release, it’s regrettable that Chris Cooper’s brilliance probably won’t be remembered when awards season rolls around. 2007 is in need of a serious drama like Breach to remind us just how good film can be. Unfortunately it’s already here and many have already missed it.
Let me state up front that I have expectations about DVDs that are based on real life people and stories. I feel that there should be additional information on the subject matter beyond just the making of the movie. In the case of Breach, where one of the real people portrayed on screen was directly involved in the making of the movie, this expectation is more than satisfied.
The DVD packaging for Breach boasts almost eighteen minutes of deleted and extended scenes from the movie. I honestly couldn’t tell you if they lasted that long or not. There are about a dozen deleted scenes and only two extended sequences. A lot of the deleted material is just as good as anything that’s in the picture itself, clearly cut just for pacing. The extended/alternate sequences, on the other hand, are better off the way they appear in the final edit. Billy Ray and editor Jeffrey Ford have commentary that accompanies the cut material explaining the reasons for the deletions and you can tell how heartbroken Ray is about several of the cuts as he points out that the value of DVD is that at least the acting still gets to be seen.
“Breaching the Truth” is a brief making-of featurette that gives a lot of screen time to Eric O’Neil – the real one, not the character in the movie. Instantly it’s unnerving how similar the real O’Neil and Phillippe look, act, and sound. The featurette gives a nice background to the movie and how connected it is to the real life events. There is a lot of discussion of the casting of the movie and the approach to keeping the story as true as possible, with the acknowledgement that some changes do have to be made in the interests of movie making. Although he isn’t a filmmaker, O’Neil is a really good speaker to base things around, which also makes for a good commentary track as well. O’Neil and Ray share more information there that I wish had been placed in the short featurette instead, simply because the featurette is more accessible.
If you hadn’t noticed from the review, what really makes this movie work for me is the characters that drive the picture. It’s appropriate then that one of the featurettes is an “Anatomy of a Character,” giving some more insight about Chris Cooper’s approach to playing Hanssen. The featurette is “brought to you by Volkswagen” but other than their name on the DVD menu and package the sponsorship doesn’t seem to interfere with the short piece.
Universal, who produced Breach takes advantage of their ownership of NBC by using a 2001 episode of “Dateline” to show the real story behind the movie. It’s a great tool for Universal to include on the DVD and fills any part of my expectation about paying attention to the real story that having O’Neil on the commentary and featurette didn’t.
At this time Breach tops my list of favorite movies for the year and this DVD is a well composed release, worthy for a movie like this. If you missed Breach in theaters, this is an absolute must see DVD.