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Greatest security ‘Breach’ investigated in new film

Erin McGinn and Brian Doxtader | Thursday, March 22, 2007

Seven months before the 9/11 attacks, the United States had already encountered another threat to national security. It was discovered that FBI agent Robert Hanssen – only a few months removed from mandatory retirement – had worked as a spy for the Soviet Union for a period of at least 15 years. The secrets that he revealed, including the sensitive protocol regarding the location of government superiors during an attack, caused immeasurable damage to national security and has been described as one of the worst intelligence disasters in American history.

Billy Ray’s “Breach” tackles the internal investigation by the FBI to nail Hanssen as the perpetrator. Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is portrayed as a God-fearing loyal Catholic and, to the casual observer, it’s hard to believe that he would be capable of betraying his country.

Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is the fledgling FBI agent assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant in an FBI attempt to garner inside information to solidify the belief Hanssen is a double agent. O’Neill then faces the difficult task of not only collecting information for his superior officers but also gaining the trust of Hanssen without arousing his suspicions. Since this is the assignment that could gain him full agent status, it is also the first time that he lives the life of an agent, which takes a toll on both him and his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas).

It is interesting to get this perspective into an agent’s personal life and how his job affects his family. Dhavernas gives an excellent performance as O’Neill’s wife, who struggles to come to terms with his rising new position in the Bureau.

“Breach” is a tense, taut and interesting film, which is a refreshing approach to this type of material. It runs under two hours, though it’s conceivable that a film of this type could be bloated out to three hours. Instead, director and co-screenwriter Billy Ray wisely decides to cut to the heart of the story, giving the film a lean, focused style that prevents it from flagging or feeling pretentious.

That “Breach” is essentially a true story makes it even more compelling, and its insights into what could drive a man to betray his country are effective. There is a wonderful scene toward the end of the picture in which Hanssen tells another FBI agent that the “why” doesn’t matter – this sums up the meaning of the film. Ray is not interested in cheap psychology, but rather in simply telling a story.

Cooper is unabashedly the dominating presence in the film, perhaps granting Hanssen more depth and dimension than the real-life spy deserves. Alternately charismatic and terrifying (in almost equal measure), viewers get a sense of the disturbed and calculating mind behind Cooper’s dark eyes.

Phillippe is quietly making a case for himself as a great actor. Coming off of his outstanding performance in “Flags of Our Fathers,” he holds his own against Cooper and delivers an effective, sensitive performance that draws audiences into his increasing fears and paranoia. Also look for notable performances by Gary Cole (better known as the boss from “Office Space”) in a surprisingly well-crafted dramatic turn as an FBI agent, as well as Laura Linney as the agent in charge of the investigation.

“Breach” is only Ray’s second film as director – the first was the similarly-themed “Shattered Glass,” which was about real-life reporter Stephen Glass, who fabricated articles for several publications. Ray, who wrote and directed “Shattered Glass” and directed “Breach,” seems to be carving out a nice little niche for himself. Like Phillippe, he is quietly building a reputatuion as a talent worthy of greater exposure.

Although the real Hanssen is locked away in Colorado’s “supermax” penitentiary (where the Unabomber is also serving his sentence), his actions still have ramifications in today’s world.

“Breach” isn’t a perfect film, and its simple approach means that its scope and breadth is relatively modest, but it’s still pertinent and enjoyable – and a chilling reminder of the evil that men can do.