Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Breach (2007) dir. Billy Ray
Starring: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillipe, Laura Linney
“Breach” has been marketed as a cat-and-mouse espionage thriller. It’s a false campaign, because it clearly aspires to be more character-driven than plot-driven. Because it’s based on a true story, it feels as if the filmmakers were trying to stay too true to the actual events rather than taking creative license to inject the film with palpable tension. As a result the film disappointingly lacks the suspense to elevate the film up to the standard Ray set for his first feature “Shattered Glass”.
Much of the tension of the film is zapped with the opening scene. It’s real footage of a press conference where then Attorney-General John Ashcroft announces they’ve captured Robert Hanssen the worst mole and security breach in United States history. Ok, we know it’s based on a true story, but now we know the ending. The film plays out the two months prior to his arrest and the surveillance tactics it took to bring him down.
Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) approaches FBI newbie Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) with an assignment to run surveillance on Hanssen who is suspected of sexual deviance. Hanssen, played with intensity by Chris Cooper, is a tough S.O.B., a computer analyst with a superiority complex and a take-no-shit attitude. He’s also a devout Catholic with strict conservative family values. At first Hanssen is tough on the kid, treating him like a second rate secretary, lecturing him about the failings of the antiquated security systems, and expounding about his consistent mistreatment and lack of recognition over the years. Just when you think O’Neill would be distancing himself from the bull, he actually becomes closer and closer to the man and comes to realize how much he has in common with him.
O’Neill is a new husband with a devoted wife, who anxiously wants to “make agent” soon in order for him to have enough money to start a family. Hanssen respects his faith and personal ethics and so he slowly gives his trust to O’Neill. As O’Neill and his wife get closer to Hanssen and his wife, O’Neill starts to question the validity of the accusations against him. At this point Burroughs is forced to reveal the full extent of Hanssen’s malfeasance – a fifteen year career of sharing top secret information with Soviet and former Soviet intelligence officers.
As O’Neill gets deeper into his work he alienates his wife. The domestic disruption is handled fairly and realistically but it’s a standard for the genre and doesn’t sufficiently elevate the intensity of the film. In fact, the stakes are rarely raised for O’Neill. Other than the threat of the breakdown of his marriage O’Neill is continually supported by the Bureau and so rarely do we feel any kind of dramatic danger from his work. After the midway point in the film there is nothing else to be revealed in the film for the audience. All the cards are on the table and the film follows a steady path toward the end.
I must respect Billy Ray for sticking to his guns, laying off the embellishments and, I assume, telling the real story as it happened. As a result the film feels flat and uneventful. We never feel the full evidence of Hanssen’s evil-deeds. We are only told the information as exposition and as flashbacks. As a result Hanssen’s motives and contradictions are never clear and so we never feel any threat. If, say, O’Neill’s doubts were allayed by his own investigation and discovery of Hanssen’s actions then the film could have been more interesting and revelatory. Too bad it didn’t happen that way in real life. But then again, not all real life stories need to be told on film.
“Shattered Glass” was another story of deception, and though the stakes were much less than national security, Billy Ray was able to create more tension and more intriguing relationships between his characters. I hate to say it but the film needed a little bit more “No Way Out” and less “60 Minutes.”
Buy it here: Breach (Widescreen Edition)