Breach: 4 Stars (out of 5)
The film is based on the true story of FBI Agent Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) who for decades sold military and intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union and was caught only months before his retirement in a sting operation by his assistant Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe). It’s a suspenseful intelligent thriller and at the same time a character study of how a deeply religious man, who attends mass everyday, with a strong sense of family and patriotism, could also be selling out his own country to its greatest enemy.
Writer/director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) doesn’t try to give easy answers, instead focusing on the paradox of Hanssen himself. The film’s best scenes revolve around Phillipe and Cooper’s simple conversations about life, the agency, family, and religion. If not for the circumstances you have a feeling a true mentor/student friendship could have developed here.
Cooper is terrific in this role presenting different aspects of this man and enjoying a few smug moments as he discusses his dislike of everything from women who wear pants to the politics of intelligence work. Phillippe is well cast in the role of a man with conflicting emotions over whether his job is even worth doing.
There are several strong supporting performances including Laura Linney as the agent who recruits O’Neil and runs the operation and Caroline Dhavernas as O’Neil’s wife, an East German immigrant less religiously devout than Hanssen approves, who believes strongly in her husband but is afraid of what his job is doing to him. Both roles could have been cardboard cut-outs, but here each actress manages to add something to the role. I was especially impressed with Dhavernas, who I’ve liked since the short lived television series Wonderfalls. With her small but strong performances here and in last year’s Hollywoodland (read that review) she’s showing she belongs on the big screen.
It’s a terrific little film, especially for this time of year, and more complete than the much over-hyped CIA flick The Good Shepherd (read that review). The film isn’t concerned with why Hanssen betrayed his country, only that he did at huge cost of life and money, and that it took an enormous effort, including the invaluable assistance of Eric O’Neill, to bring him to justice.