Spy and espionage films have been a Hollywood staple for decades, but it’s not often that we get one based on a true story. There’s no need to even bother with that little tidbit, though. In the opening credits the scene is set by footage of former Attorney General John Ashcroft delivering his famous speech in which he announces that they have finally captured the man responsible for the greatest security leak in United States history. Shortly after that the movie launches into a dramatic battle of wits and wills far too engaging to leave time to think about its origins. The fact that it’s based on real events is all but forgotten until the end, when the usual paragraphs of “true story” aftermath flash across the screen. It’s a satisfying sensation.
Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe), a determined surveillance-op for the FBI, has his mind set on being promoted to full Agent status. His ambitions don’t seem to be getting him very far until the day he’s called into a meeting with an Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney). Burroughs informs him that he’s being assigned to ride the desk of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), one of the FBI’s smartest intel operatives, a man who spent 25 years of the Cold War analyzing the tactics of the Soviet Union. He also happens to be suspected of posting explicit sexual content on the internet, a habit the FBI finds troublesome. Burroughs informs O’Neill that his real responsibility is to watch Hanssen’s every move and report back to her.
Within his first few days on this new assignment, O’Neill begins to doubt the nature of the job. He finds Hanssen to be a strong Catholic family man with solid moral boundaries and a strong sense of pride in his work. As well, they both share a distaste for the antiquated, self-indulgent security protocols within the FBI. When the restless O’Neill confronts Burroughs with his suspicions that they’re barking up the wrong tree, she lets him in on the real purpose of his assignment to Hanssen. The man’s dark side runs much deeper than internet naughtiness.
Burroughs tells O’Neill that Hanssen has been feeding top secret information to America’s enemies for over twenty years and the damage he has done ranks in the millions of dollars and his actions have lead to dozens of deaths. The FBI has been aware of his activities for some time, but they have yet to catch him in the act. Nabbing him red handed is crucial if they want to be able to arrest and interrogate him to uncover the complete nature of his betrayal. Now painfully aware of the precarious duty he’s performing, O’Neill finds himself pitted against the greatest mind he’s ever known and the most treacherous spy ever to infiltrate the U.S. government.
Pay no heed to the hype about Breach being an action thriller. It’s a suspenseful drama, but even the suspense is a stretch. The focus is on the intense relationship that O’Neill and Hanssen develop and the mind games they play as they try to peel away the layers they have each built around themselves. Chris Cooper is phenomenal as Hanssen. Even though he’s done a spate of these spy-type movies recently, he has a chance with the role of Hanssen to take things to a completely different level. The result is absolutely his best work yet. Ryan Phillipe does an admirable job of keeping up with his challenging co-star, but his rough edges show when he’s face to face with the likes of Cooper and Linney.
While based on a true story with a conclusion that many will probably already know (or guess), it doesn’t diminish the power of the finale. Though a little too neat and tidy, the ending leaves off with an image of Hanssen that is wonderfully ambiguous. I found myself left to debate the question of where the man ended and spy began and how the two co-existed in a single mind. It’s a delicious and thought provoking place to end, especially for a story taken from the real world of politics and espionage.