February 18, 2007 -- “Breach” is a based-on-fact spy movie about two intelligent double agents trying to outsmart each other. One of them is a traitor, selling U.S. secrets to the Russians. The other is trying to bring the traitor to justice by spying on him while working as his office assistant. This movie is based on the actual spy case of Robert Hanssen (played in the movie by Chris Cooper of “Seabiscuit”), an FBI agent who was apprehended in 2001 after years of selling secrets to Soviet and Russian agents. The man who helped catch him, Eric O'Neill (played in the movie by Ryan Phillippe of “Flags of Our Fathers”) was inexperienced in espionage, but learned quickly.
The movie unfolds much like a stage play, with most of the story told through conversations between Hanssen and O'Neill. The two become close in an uneasy way, partly because both are Catholics (Hanssen was a member of Opus Dei). Both also share an interest in computers, with Hanssen being one of the top computer experts in the FBI. Their friendship is uneasy, however, because Hanssen distrusts O'Neill and O'Neill is actively spying on Hanssen. A tense cloud of paranoia envelops both men. There are other problems, too. O'Neill's wife Juliana O'Neill (Caroline Dhavernas of “Hollywoodland”) finds Hanssen positively creepy and doesn't like his attempts to proselytize her. Hanssen himself was converted to Catholicism because of his wife's (Bonnie Hanssen, played by Kathleen Quinlan of “Apollo 13”) devotion to the church. He attends mass daily.
Hanssen is very smart and cautious. He keeps testing O'Neill and trying to trip him up. The fact that O'Neill is a novice in the spy game works to his advantage. He screws up often enough that Hanssen comes to view him as a harmless bungler. O'Neill learns to use his bungling as an excuse when he needs to manipulate Hanssen's schedule, as he does in one key scene, in order to obtain evidence. This tricky cat and mouse game continues for most of the movie and it is nerve-wracking for both men. The fact that O'Neill can't tell his wife about his work also causes a lot of tension between the two. O'Neill finds the whole spy business very distasteful and is eager to see it come to an end.
While some viewers find this movie compelling, I found it slow-moving, even though it is not a particularly long movie (110 minutes). The pace definitely drags at times. It is also a bit too visually static, like a two-man stage play. I think I would have liked it more if was opened up a bit with a few more outdoor locations in the daylight. It is pretty dark, visually drab and claustrophobic. The acting performances are outstanding, however, including Laura Linney's performance as O'Neill's handler, Kate Burroughs. The dialogue is well-written. It is a perfectly good film, just not a great one. It is also refreshing to see a film centered on intelligent adults. It rates a B.
It should be noted that if this same kind of spy case happened today, the FBI probably wouldn't go to all the trouble to get proof that would hold up in court. Under new laws, they can simply grab someone off the street without an arrest warrant and lock them up forever without the need for compelling evidence or a trial. Does that make you feel safe? It is supposed to. As Pogo once famously said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
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