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On February 18, 2001, Robert Hanssen, a 56-year old FBI agent, was
arrested, by the very agency he worked for, for selling secrets to the
Russians. He was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to
15 charges of espionage. This is widely considered to be the worst case
of treason in the history of American intelligence.
"Breach" looks at the story through the eyes of Eric O'Neill, the young, up-and-coming junior agent assigned by investigators in the bureau to spy on Hanssen. In the position of personal assistant to Hanssen, O'Neill works to uncover evidence against his boss that will help to strengthen the legal case gradually being built against him.
"Breach" is a fairly solid political thriller, less concerned with big action scenes than with examining the relationship between these two very different men set in unwitting opposition to one another. Hanssen himself is a mass of immense hypocrisies and contradictions. A devout Catholic, he attends Mass religiously, recites the rosary everyday, and looks with disdain upon homosexuals, women who wear pants and anybody seemingly to the left politically of Rush Limbaugh and Ronald Reagan. Yet, despite his outward display of moral rectitude, Hanssen secretly distributes porn videos of his wife (she is unaware of their existence) and betrays his country by turning over classified information to the enemy. O'Neill finds himself simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the man, who manages to be both prig and libertine at one and the same time. O'Neill knows that what Hanssen is doing is terribly wrong, yet he can't help falling under the spell of a man he knows that, under other circumstances, he might well come to value as a friend and a mentor.
Ryan Philippe is subtle and brooding as the taciturn O'Neill, reluctant to condemn the man he's been sent to bring down until all the facts are in. It's true that his performance is a bit of a Johnny-one-note at times, but since the function of the character is that of observer rather than catalyst, Philippe's self-effacing underplaying seems the right editorial choice here. Plus, it clears the deck for Chris Cooper to step to the forefront with his finely-tuned interpretation of Hanssen that brings real dimensionality and depth to the film. He turns Hanssen into a richly complex figure, a man who demands strict adherence to form yet who systematically violates that very rule at the deepest core of his own being. A stickler for protocol and standards and unforgiving of those who fall short of them, Hanssen somehow fails to see his own glaring weaknesses while managing to condemn others for theirs. Through his perceptive performance, Cooper makes it possible for us to see this walking paradox in all his complexity and humanity.
The movie itself, written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Billy Ray, and directed by Ray, is a trifle plodding at times and doesn't feel as vital as perhaps it should given the seriousness of the issues it is addressing, but, for the most part, we welcome its unfrenetic approach to the subject. It doesn't try to gin up the melodrama or unravel its human enigma - rather it presents him as truthfully and impartially as possible, then leaves it up to the viewer to render the final judgment.
The history behind the FBI and the CIA have always fascinated me and I
have studied this history for many years. I am well aware of the story
of Robert Hanssen, and had to see the film because of that. I had my
doubts about it, being the avid movie-goer that I am that they would
try to "Hollywood-ize" it too much, as is almost always the case when a
true story hit the silver screen. This is not the case with "Breach".
Some of the things in the movie are stretched, as is always the case, but it still remains very loyal to the truth. "Breach" does a wonderful job of taking theses slightly exaggerated parts to increase the feeling of drama and suspense, and doing it the right way.
Another bright spot is Oscar Winner Chris Cooper's fantastic portrayal of Hanssen. Cooper does such a great job of capturing Hanssen's intimidation of young Eric O'Neill and his increasing paranoia. There is no doubt in my mind that Cooper's role is Oscar worthy. It would be a shame if he were not nominated.
This film is excellent from beginning to end and is without a doubt the best spy movie I have seen in ages. The film itself, like Chris Cooper, I believe is Oscar worthy.
Chris Cooper, already an established actor, gives the performance of a
lifetime as Robert Hansen, the FBI agent arrested for 25 years of
espionage against the United States. Cooper convincingly portrays the
smugness, cockiness, and "holier than thou" attitude which eventually
(in my eyes) led to Hansen's downfall.
The movie is tense and moves swiftly without compromising the story line. Ryan Phillipe is equally impressive as the young FBI employee who is brought on to earn Hansen's trust and find out what made him tick.
This is a must-see - I saw it with about 100 people ... and from what I heard, almost everyone was still talking about it afterward as they walked out and in the bathrooms - and all were great comments.
Definitely an early Oscar contender for 2008 in my opinion.
I was surprised at how effective this was. You know from the very
beginning how it will end. You know because it is a true story that
there will be no trendy plot twists. You expect, and find, that the
young assistant is built around a cliché, as is Hanssen's Catholicism,
which oddly ignores the role of Opus Dei in this venture, and focuses
on prayer instead of devotion.
And there is a formulaic bit about damaging fathers and odd wives. More: there's the project command center that is drawn from movies and not from life. And finally, our hero is told the FBI's biggest secret in an open public place. This would never ever happen, and it is staged this way only to help the pacing of the thing in terms of stagecraft. And that DIA computer room, with the nice clean Cray-like machines, is from the same fantasy world as "Red October's" neon-lighted missile tubes.
But in spite of all this, it works. And especially compared to "The Departed," it works, simply, cleanly, deeply.
That's because the filmmaker decided early in the game that he was going to do what the Hong Kong "Infernal Affairs" did well and others copied: this business of actors playing characters who are actors. In this case, we have two such in the same boat.
We have a top information manager at the FBI working for the Russians and acting normal, even when leading the hunt for himself. We have the young under cover guy pretending to be simply a clerk. Each intuits the other is watching. The older man completely wins at the start, with the younger man eventually besting him in artifice. Its a calculation that the filmmaker makes, when deciding not to tell us why our young hero does what he does and where he gets the tools. In an ordinary story, that would hurt, but here it is a wise decision because such "explaining" would get in the way of the economy of the thing. And it is all about economic connection with us.
Its a bit counterintuitive that effective stories sometimes get better by lopping off story elements and information. But it is true. Some students of the Hanssen case believe that Hanssen's primary motive was to show his own importance (as a information security planner) by revealing holes in the system that he would have plugged. I wish this film would have worked with that a bit, because this notion of helping the system by hurting is system is both what the story could have been about and the means used to tell the story.
Still, a good one.
As a historical note, there's a reason folks from the FBI and CIA, even senior ones, can't wander into NSA computing facilities. Hanssen wasn't allowed, probably a good thing at the time. Opus Dei again.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In February 2001, F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen was arrested by an agency
task force and charged with selling the highest and most classified of
the government's secrets to the Soviet Union. His case would later
identify him as the biggest spy in American history who's sharing of
sensitive documents and information lead to the death of at least three
operatives while exposing some of the nation's highest confidential
secrets and operations.
Breach, the new film by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) tells this remarkable story of how Hanssen was eventually exposed and how the F.B.I. worked over the final two months of his employment at the agency to try and infiltrate his circle and make a case using all their available resources at the highest level of the bureau.
Chris Cooper (Adaptation) plays Hanssen. He is a church going family man that at first hardly mirrors the monster that the agency is determined to expose. Ryan Phillippe (Crash) plays Eric O'Neill, an agent wannabe that is assigned to work as Henssen's clerk in an attempt to follow, document and spy on his move in an attempt to help the F.B.I. build their case. Their relationship for two months will lead to the downfall of Hanssen's operations and would leave a black mark on the government agencies in a year that presented its own problems by September 11th.
When we first meet O'Neill, he is a hard working computer and surveillance wiz. Married to a beautiful wife (Caroline Dhavernas) Eric has all the hopes and ambitions of working his way up the corporate ladder to become an F.B.I. field agent. So when the Bureau's Kate Borroughs recruits O'Neill to work for and report all activities of Hanssen, Eric is quick to realize the opportunity and accepts the position as Hanssen's clerk.
Eric is informed that Hanssen is nothing more than a sexual deviant that if revealed, would bring great embarrassment to the Agency. He is told of Hanssen's penchant for strippers, women and web sites depicting sexual acts and behavior and his role is based unconditionally on surveillance furthering this information.
But as Eric is dragged deeper and deeper into Hanssen's personal and professional life, he can hardly confirm his superior's suggestions. Hanssen became a mentor. He was a highly intellectual individual that had strong Catholic beliefs and a wife and family to which he adored. This brings O'Neill to question agent Borroughs as to exactly why the agency is investing so much energy and time into a man that revealed himself to be more the perfect neighbor rather than the someone worthy of such high level agency attention.
This brings Borroughs to her only recourse informing O'Neill that Hanssen is everything they claim him to be and more. He is someone who has sold secrets to the enemy and jeopardized the safety and security of the American people and their allies.
With this new information in tow, O'Neill continues with his surveillance with new found ambition and cooperates in luring Hanssen into a trust that will eventually lead to his arrest.
Breach is one of those rare spy movies that is almost perfect. The characters are all crisp and well developed and the story, inspired by real events, is a screenwriters dream. Imagine being handed the reins to a film about people whose lives - in ways that we might never fully realize the complete impact - shaped the future of a country by exposing how one man could have access and be trusted with the most confidential of information.
Luckily for us the paying customer the story and its telling were given to screenwriters Adam Mazer and William Rotko under the direction of Billy Ray who surprisingly handles the content and the pacing like a veteran even though he previously had only one directing credit on his resume prior to this superior outing. I couldn't help but think that the same story under the producing credit of Jerry Bruckheimer would have produced something with tremendous gunfire, explosions, over-wrought musical scores and a cat and mouse story that would have had more dramatic trumped up moments rather than believable situations where the tension felt by the audience comes in the form of watching our characters fight against the time they are given to produce the necessary evidence while the weight of their failure and exposure hangs heavy in the balance.
It's unfortunate that Breach is being released this time of year. Most audiences in the mood for serious fare will be spending their monies trying to catch the Oscar nominees and winners and with popcorn fare such as Ghost Rider and Bridge to Terabithia being released Breach may get lost in all the shuffle.
So whether Breach has box office success or must find life on DVD is up to the public, but one thing is certain Breach is already one of the best films of the year and as far as the spy movie genre goes, I for one am hard pressed to mention another as worthy effort.
"Breach" is slow - slow enough to recommend waiting to rent for most
people. It is a good story, but the material requires the methodical
pacing that will bore viewers hoping for car chases and gun fights.
The most authentic part of the movie is its attention to detail. The interior shots look like the drab, boring government offices they portray. This wonderfully realistic touch will be lost on those that haven't toiled in such holes; it is nice that a movie finally depicts a governmental office that looks like one, instead of a futuristic, gleaming movie version that has more in common with the starship Enterprise.
Intentionally or not, the drabness goes beyond the office spaces (apologies to - yeahhh - Gary Cole). Laura Linney's hair is flat and dull, and she's as pale as a ghost. All of the exterior shots are cloudy with a 70% chance of showers, like DC all winter long. The somber look of the movie enhances theme, but will probably leave some viewers with a bad taste.
As a retired intelligence analyst, I enjoyed this movie because it reminds us that traitors exist, and they cause damage to our national security. Like "United 93" it isn't easy or enjoyable to watch, but the subject matter is thought provoking.
Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Billy Ray was the
creative force behind "Shattered Glass" a few years ago and obviously
is drawn to true stories of human deception. Here he takes on one of
our biggest fears ... a federal agent who sells out his own country.
Normally we only get these type of scenarios in LeCarre novels, but the
story of FBI agent Robert Hanssen is a real life nightmare.
Perfect casting has Chris Cooper as the very odd Hanssen who has nearly 25 years with the bureau, many of which have been spent selling off national secrets to the Soviet Union. In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Hanssen was put in charge of finding the mole ... yes, his job was to find himself!! Cooper is very strong here as the ego-maniacal tortured soul who pulls off his deceit with a disarming devotion to religion, the bureau and blending. He appears to be just another working stiff pulling in a paycheck.
Most of the supporting staff is solid. Laura Linney is slightly miscast as the agent in charge of bringing Hanssen down. Dennis Haysbert is her boss. Gary Cole plays it straight here, and Kathleen Quinlan (as Hanssen's wife) and Bruce Davison (as Eric O'Neill's dad) have brief but effective turns. Caroline Dhavernas is an actress I am not familiar with, but her performance here has me intrigued.
The weak link in the film is Ryan Phillipe, who just doesn't possess the acting chops to pull off the pivotal role of Eric O'Neill - the agent wannabe who gets thrust into the crucial position of bringing Hanssen down. It is just implausible to believe Phillipe could ever pass the FBI entrance exam, much less outsmart the guy who outsmarted the entire bureau for two decades. Despite the weakness, the story is strong enough to overcome this and maintain the quasi-thriller feel. This is quite an accomplishment for a film when all the viewers know how it will end!! The real life Hanssen is spending life in prison and O'Neill immediately resigned from the bureau for the "normal" life of a Washington attorney. Part spy thriller, part history lesson, part psychoanalysis, "Breach" is very enjoyable despite the fact that we are provided no real answers as to WHY this man acted as he did. We are only led to believe that it wasn't the money, but instead the ego that drove his madness.
Breach is based on the true story of the capture of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent responsible for many treasonous acts against the United States. Chris Cooper is excellent throughout in portraying a Catholic family man who goes to church constantly with his wife and kids while hiding his sexual perversions. Ryan Phillippe is Eric O'Neill, Hanssen's new assistant who is assigned by boss Laura Linney to keep tabs on Hanssen to use as evidence against him. Caroline Dhavernas as Eric's European wife who wants Eric to come clean about his job, Gary Cole as another agent, and Dennis Haysbert as Linney's superior round out the fine cast in a film that slowly but surely builds up suspense in the various ways of snooping that brings the bureau closer to catching Hanssen in the act of treason. Don't expect James Bond or Alias action here. Do expect an excellent drama about an agent who almost slipped from the FBI's hands.
We had the opportunity to see the film and engage in a Q&A with
writer/director Billy Ray.
The movie was so tightly written and portrayed events in such a way that in a very short amount of time you understood so much more than was covered by all of the books and newspaper accounts of the incident involving Robert Hanssen.
The acting was fantastic with Chris Cooper way out in front giving another amazing performance.
The Q&A with Billy Ray revealed a man who is so skilled at his craft and so methodical and strategic yet at the same time plagued by unnecessary insecurity.
This is a must see!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Despite the excellent acting in Breach, the screenplay and plot leave much to be desired. Much better to have stuck to the facts, since Hanssen's life and downfall are interesting enough as is, without the plot contrivances of a very young and green sleuth managing to keep up with his clever elder. It is very difficult to stay interested in the story line when Hanssen does not immediately marginalize his assistant, instead of taking him into his confidence and ultimately destroying himself. Perhaps with a better actor than Ryan Phillippe, who can't keep up with Cooper, viewers could manage to suspend belief and become involved in this contrivance. Hanssen certainly was a monster, but he was never this stupid.
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