Thursday, February 22, 2007

Breach (2007)

Starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillipe; Directed by Billy Ray

Breach is a fascinating glimpse into the mind and heart of the FBI’s worst traitor, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) is a young FBI agent-in-training; he’s assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant in order to investigate if the senior agent presents a security risk. Only later is O’Neill told that the FBI has discovered that Hanssen is selling secrets to Russia, and that O’Neill’s new job is to help catch him in the act. Cooper delivers a stunning, multilayered performance as Hanssen, inhabiting the role with authority, energy, and complexity. This movie is based on actual events.

The pleasure of the film is seeing the cat and mouse game between Hanssen and O’Neill. O’Neill at first admires Hanssen, seeing a very smart, intensely religious man. He tells his FBI handler that they might be making a mistake about Hanssen; far from being a security risk, he may be getting punished for being outspoken. Everything changes once he knows Hanssen is a traitor. O’Neill has to distract Hanssen at key moments so that the team tracking Hanssen has time to search for incriminating evidence. It’s tense and dangerous work. Catching Hanssen in the act is also a real challenge: he’s getting suspicious, and may decide to stop his treasonous acts.

Laura Linney is convincing as O’Neill’s handler; Dennis Haysbert (President Palmer on 24) also adds authority and intensity as one of the team tracking Hanssen.

Hanssen is a dominating, menacing man, with a threat of physical violence that has O’Neill almost shaking at times. Further, this undercover job puts a real strain on O’Neill’s marriage; he can’t tell his wife anything about what he’s doing, and she’s very curious. Apparently this is an occupational hazard for FBI agents; they must accept that their real work can seldom be shared with their spouses.

We know the outcome of this movie at its beginning, but Cooper is riveting as the traitor at the center of it all. We get clues as to why Hanssen became a traitor, but they’re not definitive. Some dark secrets of the human heart are forever hidden or can only be suggested. Cooper should get an Oscar for this performance.

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