Based on the true story of the worst security breach in U.S. history, Breach follows the efforts of the hardened Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and her young protégé Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) and their efforts to catch the deceitful intelligence guru Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who sold classified military secrets to the Russians for more than two decades before finally being arrested and charged with treason in 2001.
O’Neill is quickly climbing the professional ladder, and his career seems to take another giant leap forward when he receives a call from headquarters. Once there, Burroughs briefs O’Neill of the situation: legendary FBI agent Robert Hanssen is a sexual deviant, and he has been posting lewd material online. It is a potentially embarrassing situation for the bureau, and Burroughs tasks O’Neill with keeping an eye on the perpetrator. But O’Neill soon becomes convinced that the bureau has the wrong man.
Hanssen is a devout Catholic. He attends church on a daily basis and loves his family dearly. Not to mention the fact he is only months away from being able to retire with a full pension and has no reason to risk his career for something so trivial. Frustrated, he confronts Burroughs. Convinced he is ready for the truth, she pulls back the curtains. In fact, the situation is far worse than O’Neill could have imagined.
For 22 years, Hanssen has been selling out his fellow Americans. From giving up bunker locations and motorcade routes of major political figures to leaking names of undercover agents in foreign countries, Hanssen has wreaked havoc within the FBI, and it is impossible to know how much blood is on his hands. By the way, the sexual deviancy is true as well. The task at hand is a daunting one for the elite group assigned with catching Hanssen in the act of making a drop to his Russian contacts. As Burroughs bluntly puts it, “He’s smarter than all of us, Eric.”
Fueled by a chilling performance by Chris Cooper, Breach works well as both an intriguing character study and a spy thriller. The film is suspenseful when it needs to be and truly spine-tingling in others. Once fully exposed to the evil of Hanssen’s character, his actions become truly terrifying.
Perhaps the best facet of the film is its polarized halves. Director Billy Ray goes to great lengths in the film’s first hour to paint an innocent picture of Hanssen, pointing out the agent’s strong religious and familial devotion, thick skin (he is passed up for promotions numerous times), and his hard-working nature. Ray almost makes us forget that this is a bad guy, that is until Burroughs drops the bomb on O’Neill, and we’re forcibly dragged back to reality. From that point, the perception of Hanssen changes dramatically. He doesn’t act any differently at first, but our suspicion alone makes his character all the more terrifying.
When Hanssen is eventually exposed, we get to see a truly anguished human being. He is burnt out, and has truly hit rock bottom. Hanssen and O’Neill’s final encounter is easily the most hair-raising moment of the entire movie. Throughout the film, Hanssen constantly heckles O’Neill to pray more, insisting that God will fix the young trainee’s problems if he only asks, and asks often. In a dramatic reversal of roles, the withered Hanssen, about to be taken into custody, quietly requests that O’Neill “pray for me.” The words come out as a plea for mercy rather than an actual question, and the result is a fitting sense of closure.
Breach isn’t a movie that’s difficult to follow. It isn’t a labyrinth of twists and turns around every corner. Rather, it stays focused on a central storyline and doesn’t deviate, which is difficult to do when the audience already knows the ending coming in. But the film’s clever details keep us interested throughout.
Moral confusion is a main theme of Breach, as both O’Neill and Hanssen struggle through battles of conscience. At first, O’Neill wonders why anyone would task him to trail a pious, kind-hearted guy like Hanssen in the first place, and he deals with immeasurable guilt and anxiety throughout the film. We also watch Hanssen’s swift deterioration as he comes to grips with his own wrongdoing. The result is a growing suspense that eventually spills over in spine-tingling fashion. 4 stars.
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