Director Billy Ray has only directed one other movie in his lifetime, the wickedly addictive Shattered Glass, about the true story of one of the most notorious abuses of journalistic fraud in U.S. history. This time around, Ray takes on an even bigger fish: the true story of the biggest espionage case in U.S. history.
Set in 2001, Breach chronicles the final months of FBI intelligence expert Robert Hanssen's career, up until the point of his arrest. The movie focuses on soon-to-be-Agent Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), who is taken off his normal caseload to become a clerk for Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who in turn has been tasked with starting a new division. However, this is not your normal clerk work. Hanssen, he is told, is a sexual deviant, and it is O'Neill's job to catch him in the act. As he soon learns, however, he is not there for sexual discriminations, but instead to spy on and bring down the biggest traitor ever known to the U.S. government.
First off, Breach is not a thriller in most senses of the word. It is, by definition, a spy thriller, but the movie is more a drama that examines two men entwined in a game only one of them knows that is being played, and that the other suspects out of pure paranoia. The real highlight of the film is Chris Cooper, who eats up every ounce of celluloid he can get his hands on. Cooper's subtle, disturbing, seemingly innocent demeanor coupled with quick bursts of anger and frustration, is Oscar-worthy material. As the movie progresses, Cooper becomes darker and darker as he deteriorates, yet still manages to hold onto something that allows the audience to sympathize with him. Is everything about him an act, or is he simply misguided? It's hard to tell, but Hanssen's contradictions are what make Breach so interesting.
The movie is a character drama to some degree, as Phillippe also turns in a very good performance as a conflicted but ultimately masterful FBI employee who, despite risking his wife, his career and even his life, forces himself to go the distance. A lot of people don't like Phillippe and find him to be quite stale, but I think the limited emotions he brings to his characters are generally intentional and well-played. That being said, Cooper tears large chunks of flesh out of him in every scene, so Phillippe has a long way to go to come anywhere close to Cooper's stature. Granted, Cooper is one of my favorite actors.
As a thriller, Breach is still effective, but those expecting a twisty spy adventure will be disappointed. The movie is pretty straightforward, as you know exactly how it's going to end (and things aren't nearly as exciting in real life as they are in the movies). Still, some of the plotting and manipulations conducted by the FBI to bring Hanssen down are done well, and do add some excitement to the mix.
Compared to Shattered Glass, Breach isn't quite as engaging, but despite the fact they both have slightly similar themes, it really isn't fair to compare the two. At the very least, the movie is worth seeing for Chris Cooper alone, but it is a great, little drama-thriller that hopefully won't be forgotten come end of the year awards.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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