Five years ago, former FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested and charged with selling secrets to the Soviets. This story has been turned into a fine film, “Breach.” Powered by a strong lead performance by Academy Award winning actor, Chris Cooper, this film is miscast as a winter/spring release and deserved a prominent fall spot for serious awards consideration.
At the beginning of the film, former U.S. Attorney General is talking about the capture of former FBI Agent Robert Hanssen. The film unspools through the viewpoint of young aide, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who helped bring down Hanssen, who was arrested on February 18, 2001, at Foxstone Park near his home in Vienna, Virginia, charged with selling American secrets to Moscow for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds over a 15-year period. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. His treason has been described as “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history”.
Young O’Neill is an agent on the rise, but understand that he can’t be promoted unless he placed on a high-profile detail. Before he blinks, he is called into a meeting with Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and told he will be placed on a new detail to observe and work with Agent Hanssen (Cooper). Initially, O’Neill’s supervisors keep him in dark and not totally understanding the larger picture of his involvement.
O’Neill’s ambitions are not lost on his young wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), who is supportive of his career that only provides her “surface knowledge” of his work. Before long, O’Neill encounters his “assignment,” Hanssen. In Hanssen’s world everything is about trust. From their first meeting, he begins to test his new aide to see if he can gain his confidence or expose him as a fraud.
O’Neill observes early that Hanssen is a very religious man, attending daily mass and suggesting that a man with strong moral beliefs is also godly. Hanssen’s is married to the perfect wife, Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan) with his family and before long he and wife are inviting Agent O’Neill and his wife and trying to inject them with “solid Christian values.”
But Hanssen is hiding several secrets. Shortly thereafter, his superiors inform O’Neill that Hanssen has been spying for the Russians for years, even exposing allies loyal to bureau to mortal danger. O’Neill’s assignment is to continue gaining Hanssen’s trust and provide information that can help bring him down. In addition, he has been secretly making videotapes of lovemaking sessions with his wife and selling them to unidentified parties. Wow, a perverted spy; Hollywood can’t make this type of stuff up!
The film then becomes an edge-of-your-seat thriller that races to an exhilarating conclusion that you already know the outcome, but the beauty of the film is how director Billy Ray gets you there.
Ray, who directed the equally thrilling film, “Shattered Glass” with Hayden Christensen, finds an actor that embodies many of the same physical features and talent in Phillippe. He gives a solid supporting performance as a man who initially is suspicious of his new assignment only to begin to respect him. Once O’Neill realizes what destruction that Hanssen is responsible for, he feels betrayed and duped by him.
One of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets remains the Oscar winning actor, Cooper. His performance is already the best performance of this young year and if this film had been released last year, he would easily be in this year’s Oscar conversation. He captures the claustrophic paranoia, initially before seeing O’Neill as someone who can continue his traitorous work. Once he is caught, he appears more relieved that a huge burden has been lifted from his shoulders.
Even though many of the 2007 releases have been major disappointments to this point, “Breach” is rare February treat – an intelligent, well made film for adults. Much like “Titanic,” knowing the outcome won’t spoil one of the best performances of the young year by Cooper.