June 18, 2007
Based on one of the most significant lapses of national security in the history of U.S. intelligence, Breach (2007) continues director Billy Ray’s aptitude and interest for factually-based exposes featuring antagonists with a knack for deception. His previous film, Shattered Glass (2003), took a fascinating look at the meteoric rise and fall of a writer who fabricated articles for The New Republic magazine. Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen also deceived many people but with much more dire consequences. He appeared to be a loyal member of the American intelligence community but was actually selling secrets to the Soviet Union. And so, Ray is on familiar ground with Breach as he tackles another true-life story.
Robert Hanssen (Cooper) is a seemingly innocuous operative who goes to church, is a loving father and an expert analysis of Russian intelligence. Eric O’Neill (Phillippe) is an up-and-comer in the FBI and keen on becoming an agent. He’s called in on a Sunday by his boss (Linney) and told that he’ll be working for Hanssen. However, his real job is to amass enough evidence to expose their suspicions that Hanssen is a sexual deviant. O’Neill’s first impressions of the man is that he’s gruff, no-nonsense and very smart, quickly putting the young man in his place and dismissing him as a dumb “clerk.”
O’Neill realizes that he is going to have to be extra careful around Hanssen who can sniff out deception in a heartbeat. Initially, O’Neill can’t imagine Hanssen being a deviant of any kind – he seems too rigid and devoutly religious, speaking often of fidelity, espousing the values of family life and ferreting out a mole he believes exists within the bureau. Of course, what a perfect way to deflect suspicion away from yourself than to appear to be the paragon of virtue and decency.
Gradually, O’Neill gains Hanssen’s confidence and even grows to admire him. It is at this point that he’s hit with a bombshell by his superiors: Hanssen is a spy for the Russians and has given information costing lives. From this point, Breach becomes a fascinating battle of wills, a cat and mouse game as O’Neill tries to catch Hanssen in the act. However, he’s at a greater disadvantage because the older agent is smarter.
Chris Cooper turns in another fine performance as the tightly-wound Hanssen. The actor creates layers to his character: the God-fearing family man, the patriotic bureaucrat and the double agent. His character maintains an impenetrable mask making it tough for O’Neill to get a good read on him. This is what made Hanssen such a good spy and Cooper appears to have a keen sense of this notion. As the film progresses, he masterfully and ever so slightly reveals the cracks in his character’s façade.
Ryan Phillippe is also quite good as the rookie agent clearly out of his depth as his character loses himself in a web of lies maintaining Hanssen’s trust while trying to protect his wife, Julianna (Dhavernas) by telling her very little about what he does at work. Phillippe has a tough job as he plays a conflicted character whose life gets increasingly complicated and stressful the more he investigates Hanssen.
As he did with Shattered Glass, Billy Ray keeps the style of Breach invisible so that nothing distracts from the story and the characters that help move it along. When you have actors like Cooper and Laura Linney and strong material for them to work with, you don’t need flashy style. Even though the outcome is already known, how the characters get there is the fascinating part of this movie and it is what makes for such absorbing spy drama much like the similarly themed (and also commercial failure), The Good Shepherd (2006).
There are eight deleted scenes with optional audio commentary by director Billy Ray and editor Jeffrey Ford. They talk about how these scenes, on their own, are quite good, but padded out the running time and needed to be cut. They put these scenes in context with the rest of the movie and explain why they were ultimately removed.
Also included are two alternate scenes with optional commentary by Ray and Ford. One scene Ray was not happy with when he originally shot it and so he rewrote and re-shot it. The other scene was too downbeat in tone and so he used another take that was more positive.
“Breaching the Truth” takes a look at how the film came together with the real Eric O’Neill talking about how he pitched the story and Ray speaking about casting his two lead actors – Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe. The filmmakers also talk about the challenge of staying truthful to the material while also making an entertaining movie.
“Anatomy of a Character” takes a look at how Cooper approaching portraying Hanssen. The actor read a lot of books, studied what little surveillance footage of the man he could and consulted with O’Neill in order to get a handle on him.
“The Mole” is a segment about the whole story that originally aired on Dateline. It examines the real people and events with co-workers and friends of Hanssen painting a fascinating portrait of this man.
Finally, there is a commentary by Ray and former FBI operative Eric O’Neill. Ray professes a love for 1970s cinema and points out a subtle homage, early on, to one of his favourite films from that era, All the President’s Men (1976). The director says that he was pressured by the studio to speed up the tempo of the first third of the movie but he didn’t want to cut out footage that told us about Hanssen’s character. O’Neill talks about how the filmmakers nailed the details of his life back then – how his apartment looked, etc. Watching it now really takes him back to that time in his life. Ray often talks about various aspects of the film while O’Neill offers his recollections of what went down from his perspective.