Breach Breaches of Theatrical Convention, Taut Spy Thriller Eschews Violence!

Breach - Ryan Phillippe & Chris CooperWhile Marvel's Ghost Rider is poised to win the box office derby, Breach, a taut little true espionage tale, comes away as the best film released this weekend – and one of the best spy thrillers ever…

 

In a way, Breach reminds me of the British spy movies of the sixties and seventies [Funeral In Berlin, The spy who Came In From The cold, and so on…]: it's a smart, elegantly layered tale of the espionage version of the old gat and mouse game. Eric O'Neill [Ryan Phillippe], an FBI intel drone who wants to become an agent, is hauled off a sensitive case by Agent Kate Burroughs [Laura Linney] to dig up the dirt on a high-powered agent named Robert Hanssen whom, she says, is a pervert – and therefore a potentially embarrassment to the service.

O'Neill is assigned to Hanssen [Chris Cooper] as his personal clerk and aide in setting up a revamp of the bureau's data security. Before long, Cooper's apparent piety [he goes to Mass every day] and family values [he and his wife seem to be madly in love and his grandchildren worship him] get to O'Neill who can't find a single sign of his alleged sexual deviancy.

Naturally, the details of his new assignment prey on his marriage to an East German expatriate, the lovely Juliana [Caroline Dhavernas], whom he takes to Sunday Mass with the Hanssens – and a family dinner afterwards, where Bonnie Hanssen attempts to convert her to Catholicism. Things become more strained when O'Neill returns home late and finds the Hanssens visiting…

Eventually, O'Neill confronts Burroughs about not finding any evidence of Hanssen's deviancy and wants to know what's really going on. So she tells him – Hanssen has been selling the Russians U.S. secrets for more than twenty years!

Caroline Dhavernas & Ryan Phillippe

In one of those rare cases when a film should be shot in shades of grey, the bleached out look of Breach is a visual metaphor for the shadowy worlds of espionage and counterintelligence. Cooper plays Hanssen as an enigma – there are so many layers to the man that it's entirely possible that even he doesn't know who he is. Even so, he's outsmarted the best the bureau has to offer for so long that O'Neill has an impossible task in getting Hanssen to trust him in a few short months.

Phillippe turns in one of his best performances as the confident O'Neill, who loses his edge as he becomes convinced that the Hanssen investigation is bogus and then has to deal with learning the details the man's crimes – and then has to go back to work with him as if nothing's wrong. Dhavernas is even better here than she was in Hollywoodland. She doesn't get an awful lot of screentime, but manages to convince us that she loves her husband and is becoming more and more frustrating with him as his assignment progresses.

Kathleen Quinlan is equally as effective as Bonnie Hanssen. Her bright sunny disposition masks a somewhat twisted private life and Quinlan captures that sunny surface and the darker shadows that swirl beneath it. Kate Burroughs isn't given a lot of notes to play – frustration, determination and weariness – but Linney manages to give them a surprising feeling of depth.

The screenplay, by Adam Mazer & William Rotko and Billy Ray, stays true to the events as much as they can – right down to the way that we never learn why Hanssen did what he did. They present the story with an understated coolness that translates into real suspense onscreen. Ray's direction is subtle, nuanced and deliberate. Even though there's a lot of exposition, the film never feels overly talky – and when the one sudden burst of violence explodes, it is truly shocking because it is as real as these things get.

Breach is definitely not for everyone – it's not a big-budget effects extravaganza; it's not a spy cartoon; it's not even a classic hero/villain movie. What it is is a smart, truthful, witty telling of a true story that involved the most egregious case of treason in American history. It is a small, almost intimate film that deals with acts that leave us with too many questions – and an exploration of the personalities that deal in and with those acts.

Grade: A

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