Eric O’Neil (Ryan Phillippe), an eager FBI recruit, submits a report on how he feels computers can help the intelligence community improve their work. Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney) brings Eric in and offers him a new assignment; he will work as an assistant to Hanssen, providing her with information about anything and everything he does. She explains Hanssen is a sexual deviant and could prove an embarrassment to the bureau. As O’Neil gets to know his new boss, he comes to respect him and realizes there may be something else going on here. The man attends church every day, loves his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) and grand children, and is two months away from retirement. Why would the bureau bother spending all of this money to trap someone who will soon fade away into the sunset? O’Neil confronts Burroughs with his suspicions and she reveals the truth. Hanssen has been selling secrets to the Soviets for twenty plus years, revealing classified information, the identity of informants and more. He has caused irreparable damage. O’Neil finally understands and realizes he has to help catch the man in the act. As the noose tightens, Hanssen’s behavior becomes more erratic and strange and finally they fear he may not make that last drop to his Soviet contacts, a drop they need to catch him in the act.
Much like last year’s “Devil Wears Prada”, “Breach” is dominated by one actor and his performance is the main reason to watch this film. It is almost mesmerizing to watch Chris Cooper play Robert Hanssen; a man who we know sold vital secrets to the Soviets, perhaps costing lives. Before he appears, Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney) meets with Eric and gives him a run down of what they are trying to do, what he should expect from his ‘new boss’, basically setting up the character, building our anticipation of him. When he first appears on screen, he does seem tense, conflicted and more. He quickly establishes his feelings about his new posting. He was once the head of the department in charge of Soviet relations and now is in charge of helping the FBI streamline their new computer operations. Bitter? A little.
And there are deep trust issues. After twenty something years of working with and around the Soviets, he has become suspicious of everyone. As he and Eric initially begin to work together, they clearly will never be the type of buddies who will share a trip to the baseball park and a couple of beers. But then Hanssen learns Eric is Catholic and Eric plays this up, seeking his boss’ help with some theological issues lying about marital problems with his wife. This proves a useful entry into his bosses guarded world.
Hanssen is a deeply religious man. He and his wife attend a weekly Latin service and Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan), his wife, wears a little veil on top of her head. As Eric uses this to become closer to his boss, Hanssen feels he can open up a little, trust his new employee a little.
But that doesn’t make Hanssen exactly a warm man. He remains guarded throughout, sharing little even with his newly ‘trusted’ Catholic employee.
Throughout, we watch Cooper reveal facets of this man’s character, slowly, but surely and decisively, making the character one of the most complete I have seen in film for some time. There are frequent mentions of Hanssen’s sexual proclivities and these remain in the back of our head throughout. When we see him interact with Bonnie, we can’t understand how he would ever be able to make a video of a sexual act between the two of them. Bonnie wears a freaking veil to her church services, how would she ever be able to willingly participate in a sex video?
As we watch Hanssen interact with his wife and kids, we begin to have our doubts, along with Eric. Can we stop for a minute and look at this? We all know about Robert Hanssen and know he has been convicted of espionage. Yet, as we watch Cooper play this real-life person, we begin to have doubts about whether he could’ve done what the government is saying he did. Think about that for a moment. Cooper’s performance is so good, so powerful; it is making us question what we know about this person, this real life person.
Cooper has always turned in interesting performances, but because he is a bit older, a bit more interesting looking, he remains a character actor. Even after this outstanding lead performance, I have no doubt he will remain a character actor. In a way, this is a blessing. Because he isn’t considered a star, he doesn’t have to worry about his image and can take challenging roles like this. We are the more fortunate for it.
The rest of the cast is top notch, but they remain in Cooper’s shadow. The person who fares the best under Cooper is Laura Linney as FBI Agent Burroughs. She is tough as nails and has devoted her life to this agency. In one scene, she has a funny interaction with Eric and reveals a lot about the sacrifices she has made for her career. Ryan Phillippe is good, but he can’t hold a candle to Chris Cooper (interestingly, much like Anne Hathaway drowned in the presence of Meryl Streep in “Devil”). The ads have reported that Phillippe “holds his own against Cooper”, Richard Roeper stated “Phillippe deserves credit for playing against his pretty boy image”. What kind of praise is this? It’s actually fairly accurate. They are trying to be kind, because they see he is giving it a shot. He could certainly be earning more money portraying the super hero du jour. Instead, he takes on more difficult, more challenging roles in films like “Breach”. But his performance is nowhere near as good as Cooper’s and they share many scenes together. Dennis Haysbert, Gary Cole and Kathleen Quinlan round out the cast, adding much needed gravitas to the subject matter.
“Breach” is also a very suspenseful film. We know what will happen to Hanssen, the film begins with new Attorney General John Ashcroft’s announcement of his capture and then shifts to two months earlier. This sets up a ‘ticking clock’; we are essentially watching how the FBI will trap this individual, catch him at his own game. Because we have a timetable in our mind, the story races towards the inevitable climax. But “Breach” surprises us as well, giving us a lot of information about the man behind the story.
Writer / director Billy Ray has taken a very small section of Robert Hanssen’s life, the last two months of his freedom, and created an illuminating portrait of this unique individual.