At one point in “Breach,” Chris Cooper’s character, Robert Hanssen, complains that his fellow FBI agents are more interested in violence and glory than in contemplation and moral conviction. Director Billy Ray must have these same complaints about cinema, for he creates a psychological thriller that lacks the obvious thrills of gratuitous violence yet remains packed with psychological suspense. Convincing yet enthralling, philosophical but not pretentious, “Breach” is based on the true story of a “serious breach in the security of the United States.” Robert Hanssen was an FBI agent who spent 22 years of his service stealing information for Russia. His work cost the United States government billions of dollars, caused the death of several American agents, and created grave, “unclassifiable” damages in American security. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O’Neill, the wannabe agent who was responsible for gaining Hanssen’s trust and uncovering the truth.
Phillippe’s O’Neill is an overachieving FBI trainee with dreams of becoming an agent. Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) assigns O’Neill to clerk for Hanssen. O’Neill’s supposed mission is to secretly keep an eye on Hanssen’s sexually charged Internet habits. O’Neill first finds his assignment to be useless and stressful, as Hanssen is intimidating and extremely difficult to please. However, Hanssen’s perceptiveness and his impatience for bullshit drive the impressionable O’Neill to work twice as hard to earn his respect. Even when it becomes clear that Hanssen is a shameless misogynist and homophobe, O’Neill still admires his extraordinary intelligence and his devotion to Catholicism and family. When Burroughs finally discloses the truth, that the charismatic Hanssen is also a treacherous spy, O’Neill discovers just how complicated the inner-workings of human nature can be.
With a different script and actors of lesser talent, “Breach” could have become another action-packed yet predictable spy thriller. However, the first scene of the film establishes that Hanssen was eventually caught. So, the remainder of the film focuses not on the outcome, but rather on the psychological reasons behind Hanssen’s treachery. Billy Ray, Adam Mazer, and William Rotko’s script is also filled with snappy dialogue containing plenty of wit and personal philosophizing. While subtlety may not be the dialogue’s strength, its cleverness and moral depth turn a potentially mundane topic into a film that is compelling and accessible.
The film is also able to captivate the audience through its strong character development. O’Neill’s wife (Caroline Dhavernas) correctly assesses Hanssen to be a “creep.” But Chris Cooper transforms Hanssen into a likable creep. He convincingly portrays the honest passion behind his character’s strong beliefs. You can hardly blame O’Neill for sympathizing with the fervent Hanssen, even as his treachery and intolerance become more apparent. Phillippe also manages to humanize to his own boring yet relatable role as an ambitious rookie who soaks up Hanssen’s astute life lessons. And Linney proves once again that she is one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood, bringing a realistic, but not excessive, amount of sensitivity to her otherwise tough character.
The film is mostly free of historical inaccuracies, but history is beside the point. At its center, “Breach” is a character study focused on the hypocrisy of human actions and values. While “Breach” does include moments of skin-crawling suspense, the final shot of Chris Cooper’s tear-stained face will haunt you more than any gun fight or countdown ever could.