When young Eric O’Neill is promoted out of his low-level surveillance job and into the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, his dream of becoming a full-fledged agent is on the verge of becoming reality. Even more impressive, O’Neill is hand picked to work for renowned operative Robert Hanssen within “information assurance,” a new division created to protect all classified FBI Intelligence. But O’Neill is quickly confronted with the true reason behind his hire: Hanssen is the sole subject of a long-term, top-secret investigation, a suspected mole made all the more dangerous by the sheer global import of the information he is charged with protecting. The Bureau asks O’Neill to use Hanssen’s growing trust and slowly draw the traitor out of deep cover. Engaged in a lethal game of spy-versus-spy without the benefit of a cover story or backup, O’Neill finds himself fighting to bring down Hanssen before the treacherous double-agent can destroy O’Neill, his family and the nation they are both sworn to serve.
cast + crew
|starring|| Ryan Phillippe
|producers|| Scott Kroopf
|screenwriters|| Billy Ray
Just when you’re thinking every new American film belongs in the Bomb Squad, along comes Breach to win one for our side. Put Chris Cooper in the running pronto for next year’s Best Actor Oscar. He’s electrifying as Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent, Opus Dei Roman Catholic, devoted family man, lover of strippers and rabid porn buff — he makes videos of himself boffing his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) — who, until 2001, spent twenty-two years selling secrets to the Russians, including the identities of spies in their midst who were killed on his intel.
Director and co-writer Billy Ray, who detailed the misconduct of journalist Stephen Glass at The New Republic in 2003’s Shattered Glass — here raises the stakes to life and death, and proves himself a filmmaker of uncommon talent and ambition. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O’Neill, the ambitious FBI novice assigned by his bureau superior Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney, adding bruising wit to a stock character) to get the goods on Hanssen by serving as his D.C. clerk. At first, O’Neill — who worked as a consultant on the film — is told just of the porn angle. Only later is he let in on the extent of Hanssen’s crimes.
Spying on a master spy is a palm-sweating challenge, and Ray milks these scenes for maximum suspense. It’s a cat-and-mouse game played out in drab offices and shabby corridors, which ace cinematographer Tak Fujimoto lights to capture the bilious underside of the espionage business. More John le Carre gravity than Ian Fleming glam, Breach succeeds more tellingly than Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd at revealing the human and moral toll of choosing betrayal as a vocation.
Phillippe, coming off surprisingly solid work in Flags of Our Fathers and the Oscar-winning Crash, excels at evoking the churning insides of a man trained to face the wall of Hanssen’s darkening contradictions by showing nothing. Ray avoids psychobabble to explain away Hanssen. Wise move. In this steadily gripping hothouse of a thriller, it’s Cooper — funny, fierce and bug-wild — who gives us a look into the abyss.