What causes a person to betray his or her country? What events precipitate a man overcoming the influence of all the civics classes, Fourth of Julys, and patriotic movies all of us are exposed to in this country and contact that foreign agent. The number one reason is probably money. Government work, while offering great job security, doesn’t pay very well, plus in any group you’re going to get habitual gamblers, and people who don’t know how to live within their means, or who simply want to be rich. Kim Philby, the Soviet mole who operated in MI6 throughout the 30’s 40’s and 50’s, genuinely sympathized with the communists and viewed his treason as heroic.

Billy Ray, the director of Breach, has done several interviews in which he’s said that he doesn’t know why Robert Hanssen sold secrets to the Soviet Union and later Russia. But if you watch the film, it’s obvious that he has a pet theory. Hanssen, at least as portrayed in the film, is supremely intelligent, much brighter than those around him, but because he’s an analyst in a bureaucratic culture that favors agents, people who actually make arrests, he doesn’t rise as fast or as far as he feels he should. He has ideas on how to secure the Bureau’s computers, which his superiors completely ignore. Here the motivations get fuzzy. Did he start selling secrets to prove his point; the FBI was vulnerable? Was it spite? A wish to make history? Or did he simply believe he could get away with it? This we’ll never know.

Breach is the Hanssen story told through the eyes of the undercover agent who was the most responsible for bringing the mole down, Eric O’Neill, played by Ryan Phillippe, who’s impressing me more with each role. O’Neill is ambitious to the point of cockiness; he knows computers and he’s competent enough to serve as the demanding Hanssen’s aide. In the end, O’Neill is so good at this assignment because he is so much like Hanssen. He’s very adept at manipulating his new boss when the investigating team needs him out of the office to search his car or download the contents of his Palm Pilot, or to make that final drop that proved Hanssen’s undoing.

Phillippe’s performance is terrific as a young and ambitious investigator who’s torn by his knowledge of what Hanssen’s done and his growing admiration for the man. Laura Linney brings depth and sympathy to the small thankless role of O’Neill’s contact in the investigation. But the centerpiece here is Chris Cooper’s great turn as Robert Hanssen. Cooper has long been one of our best character actors and this role adds to his list of great performances. He captures all the disparate elements of Hanssen; pious patriot; pornographer; traitor. It’s amazing to watch.

Around these performances, director Billy Ray has created a suspenseful film. It all starts with an excellent script by Adam Mazer and William Rotko. I’ve pointed out the best performances but all the cast is solid.

In the end, Breach doesn’t answer the big question, but the asking is so compelling, you don’t care.


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March 2007
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