Given its unbearably generic title, one would expect “Breach” to be indistinguishable from the usual spy-thriller fare. And it does contain many of the typical elements, like a suspenseful score, a nagging wife who can’t handle the secrets of the espionage life, a young, naive and stoic main character, and heavily telegraphed plot twists. But in the end, “Breach” belies its banal title thanks to superb acting and a satisfying and comprehensive focus on character motivation over cliched spy drama.
“Breach” chronicles the highly publicized 2001 take-down of Robert Hanssen — played perfectly by Chris Cooper and his communicative furrowed brow — who gave away FBI secrets to the Soviet Union for over 20 years in the greatest security “breach” in American history. The film begins as Eric O’Neill — a young intelligence officer aspiring to become an agent, played by the well-cast Ryan Phillippe — is reassigned as Hanssen’s assistant and secretly charged with the task of uncovering Hanssen’s alleged “sexual deviancy.”
From the second he walks into his FBI office, Cooper grabs the viewer’s attention and never lets go. He effortlessly switches between sharp-witted asshole and subtly endearing father figure, all the while suggesting that a fragile being lurks underneath, seeking a sense of importance and approval. Cooper’s constantly calculating stare and twitching jaw work to make his face one of the most expressive in show business.
Despite knowing from the opening scene — which announces Hanssen’s ultimate arrest — that he betrayed his country, the viewer (along with Officer O’Neill) is drawn in by Hanssen’s charm and charisma. When O’Neill discovers that Hanssen is being monitored, not because of his sexual deviancy, but for selling American secrets, the audience feels as betrayed as O’Neill, a testament to both Cooper and Phillippe’s performance.
As the FBI works to gather a strong enough case to bring Hanssen down, the film follows O’Neill as he alternatively respects and hates his boss. Phillippe gives an accidentally great performance: Anyone who has seen “Flags of Our Fathers” knows everything Phillippe says on screen comes across as inauthentic and awkward. Thankfully for him, however, those two qualities were exactly what the role called for in this case, and, in fact, provided a seemingly profound insight into the character.
Laura Linney rounds off the central trio as the FBI boss personally invested in bringing Hanssen down. Linney does her best Jodie Foster (especially Foster’s role in “Inside Man”), from her striking physical resemblance to the pantsuits to the “we-mean-business” attitude. Perhaps not coincidentally, writer and director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) also wrote Foster-vehicle “Flightplan.” If you can’t get the real thing, Laura Linney will do.
The final scenes are unique for this genre, smartly focusing on an exploration of the motivations of the three central characters. The explanations offered are cleverly and subtly introduced and feel real, thoughtful and comprehensive, and the film adds depth by exploring the religious sentiments of its characters. But while the final scenes are notable for their creativity, much of the middle segment of the film falls into repetitive filler. A central plot dealing with O’Neill’s wife, who contributes only an annoying accent and who struggles to come to terms with the secrecy of her husband’s job, is as original as making your Facebook profile photo a flyer for your upcoming play. Even Angelina Jolie couldn’t provide a fresh perspective when she played this role in “The Good Shepherd.” The action of the middle scenes is driven by O’Neill’s attempts to get personal information from Hanssen without him noticing, which often translates to Hanssen opening the door just as O’Neill puts the last paper clip in the right place.
These contrivances can be forgiven, however, as “Breach” rarely insults its audience’s intelligence. And, following weeks where “Ghost Rider” and “Norbit” reigned supreme at the box office, this feat is particularly refreshing.