Spy vs. spy: An aging veteran tangos with a canny but green rookie in understated character study ‘Breach’

February 5, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 5, 2014

In late 2000, veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen was posted to the bureau’s headquarters and put in charge of a new division, the Information Assurance Section. Hanssen, a devout Catholic, had an abrasive, brook-no-B.S. approach to his job that had won him many enemies. He also had an impressive intellect that had earned him a great deal of respect, however begrudging, from his peers.

Over a two-month period, probationary agent Eric O’Neill would come to know Hanssen intimately. As shown in the 2007 film Breach, which is based on actual events, O’Neill was pulled from surveillance duty and made Hanssen’s assistant. His secret assignment: Win the trust of his crusty, acerbic boss — and figure out how to catch Hanssen in the act of betraying his employer and nation.

Breach was directed by Billy Ray, who scripted the first Hunger Games movie as well as the 2013 Tom Hanks vehicle Captain Phillips. Ray collaborated on the script for Breach with Adam Mazer and William Rotko.

Some of the film’s early tension comes as O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) tries to determine just why he’s been seconded to Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Initially, his new covert supervisor, the tough-as-nails Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), tells him that the veteran agent is being investigated for sexual perversion. This isn’t entirely untrue; in real life, Hanssen arranged for a friend to see conjugal activities over a secret camera Hanssen planted in his own bedroom, a personal betrayal that’s shown in slightly modified form in the movie.

But the real reason that the FBI wants to nail the senior agent is that Russian spies told them that Hanssen had given away secrets for a quarter-century. With the mole nearing retirement, the bureau is desperate to prove Hanssen’s betrayal with court-admissible evidence that will give them enough leverage over the target so that he might become cooperative and help undo some of the damage from his years of leaks.

“He was smarter than all of us,” Burroughs, referring to Hanssen, tells O’Neill in a key scene. “Actually, I can live with that part. It’s the idea that my entire career has been a waste of time, that’s the part I hate. Everything I’ve done since I got to this office, everything we’ve all been paid to do, he was undoing it. We all could’ve just stayed home.”

In order to stop Hanssen, O’Neill must get to know his ostensible boss better than even Hanssen’s own wife, Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan), knows him. But as the junior man grows closer to his target, he finds things to admire about Hanssen. He also finds that his undercover work is driving him apart from his wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), even as Robert and Bonnie Hanssen begin to insert themselves into the younger couple’s personal affairs.

Ultimately, this movie becomes a sort of race in which there can only be losers. Will Hanssen, who has begun to suspect that he is under surveillance, make one last drop before he retires? Or will Eric’s bond with Juliana break as she tries to accommodate the intrusive Hanssens despite their — and Eric — making her feel profoundly uncomfortable?

Cooper’s portrayal of the complex Hanssen is far and away the best thing about Breach. His buttoned-down bureau man is curt to the point of cruelty, and insistent upon adherence to Catholic virtues even as he covertly films his own love-making and orders O’Neill to steal office equipment and decorations. Yet the sleazy Hanssen is also a devoted family man who goes out of his way to assist his protégé once he’s convinced of O’Neill’s loyalty.

As good as Cooper is, I was frustrated by Phillippe’s performance as O’Neill, Hanssen’s assistant-cum-protégé-cum-nemesis. The younger man is very much a cipher; because of institutional protocol, and because of his undercover assignment, the film requires him to maintain a neutral expression throughout most of the proceedings. Ultimately, alas, the character is so flat that it’s hard to sympathize with O’Neill’s professional and personal plight.

Some of my criticisms of Breach could also be applied to Shattered Glass, Ray’s 2003 directorial debut. In that film, also based on real events, the generational politics were reversed: Young journalist and serial fabulist Stephen Glass was a weaselly yet sympathetic dissembler, while older editor Chuck Lane was a blank-faced family man tasked with rooting out the truth. In both pictures, the proceedings play out with a certain clinical disinterest, as if Ray deliberately wishes to create a firebreak between the emotions of the characters and those of the audience.

Another issue with both films is that the stakes seem rather diminished in retrospect. These movies depict real-life scandals that occurred, in the main, prior to George W. Bush becoming president (Hanssen was arrested in February 2001; Glass was unmasked as a fraud in spring 1998). But both movies were made after the defining event of the Bush administration — the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, which led to the nation’s longest war, in Afghanistan, and (arguably) its most misguided one, in Iraq. Whatever one thinks about journalism or America’s decades-long competition with the Soviet Union and Russia, the misdeeds of Glass and Hanssen seem rather small compared to the damage inflicted by a motley, ill-trained band equipped with box-cutters.

After watching the film, I found myself bothered by some of its inventions. In real life, apparently, O’Neill was told right from the start why he was being asked to spy on Hanssen, and one climactic scene was evidently made from whole cloth. Perhaps it’s asking too much for a fact-based film to spend more time sticking to the facts and less time shaping a dramatic narrative, but I wonder whether a truer-to-life chronicle might not ultimately have made for a better movie.

(And for the record, yes: While on the one hand I am criticizing Breach for its emotional coolness, I am also uneasy with Ray, Mazer and Rotko straying from the facts in order to create more drama.)

Still, Breach tells a fascinating story, even if this tale isn’t always the most compelling one committed to film. And for all the character’s (and actor’s?) flaws, Ray and his co-writers ultimately build enough of an arc for O’Neill that he faces an interesting dilemma. (It’s one that’s resolved in satisfying fashion, too, for what it’s worth.)

So in the end, Breach is a spy movie that’s more about characters than spying, set in a murky transitional period just as an unknowing world was about to pivot from the Cold War to a nigh-endless war on terror. Breach is a curiosity, but this understated movie is also a strangely rewarding one for the right audience.

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