Talking Movies

September 6, 2019

From the Archives: Breach

Another trawl thru the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers another puzzler from director Billy Ray, as FBI rookie Eric O’Neal (Ryan Phillipe) is assigned to spy on his new boss, senior analyst Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). O’Neal is shocked to discover, after becoming friends with the older man, that Hanssen is a suspected traitor.

This is not the sort of fare one usually associates with August. The Bourne Identity star Chris Cooper returns to the espionage genre with a far more muted depiction of the world of intelligence than current nerve shredder The Bourne Ultimatum. Melancholy is the key word here. Chris Cooper from the opening credits portrays the real life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen as a man exhausted by his double lives, almost aching to be exposed just so the need for deception will finally end. The tone of the story is reflected in its setting: Washington DC in January and February with snow on the ground, a chill wind in the air, and grey and blue tints in all the Bureau’s offices.

Billy Ray as a director seems to have created his own sub-genre in which he makes intelligent fact-based films drawing out good acting performances from previously disregarded pretty boys. Breach follows his directorial debut Shattered Glass in which he drew an emotionally affecting performance from Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, a reporter who nearly destroyed the reputation of The New Republic by making up stories. In Breach Ray manages to drag a good performance out of Ryan Phillipe, who convincingly plays that cinematic staple, the undercover agent who starts to sympathise with his prey. As FBI operative Eric O’Neal he spends the opening act of the film being astounded at the ordinariness of a man he has been assigned to spy on for suspected sexual misconduct. Once he penetrates the initial frosty reserve of Hanssen he finds a loyal, highly intelligent and kindly FBI analyst. Hanssen and his wife even invite O’Neal and his East German wife (Caroline Dhavernas) over for Sunday dinner. Following this O’Neal demands to know from his superiors why he is investigating Hanssen and is told by Laura Linney’s senior FBI agent that Hanssen is suspected not of sexual deviancy but of selling secrets. Ray creates scenes of almost unbearable suspense as the FBI try to acquire evidence against an agent who has consistently out-thought all their investigations to find the suspected mole.

Robert Hanssen, like Stephen Glass, remains even now an enigma. The reasons he gives Special Agent Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) for a previous traitor’s actions all seem to apply equally to himself, but while all are semi-plausible none truly convince. Hanssen is brilliantly portrayed by Cooper not just as a double agent but a double personality. He is a strict Catholic who secretly distributes home-made sex tapes, a loyal FBI man who tries to draw attention to implacable threats to American security but is in fact selling secrets to the Russians. The haunting final image powerfully conveys this self-tortured quality in a succinct summary of the subtlety of this film.

3/5

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