Reviewed by: Moominkat

Welcome to the real (i.e. grey, dreary, mundane) world of spying... There are no car chases here; we have to make do with a rather tense confrontation in a traffic jam. Gun showdowns are carried out in the FBI basement shooting gallery while high tech equipment is confined to nicking the latest office PCs off pallets in the hallway, since it’ll take weeks to get them by putting in a requisition. If this makes this film sound like a comedy, then I’m successfully leading you up the garden path; confusing the issue as it were. Because this film is no laughing matter.

Breach is a solid, serious and, yes, tense recounting of the real-life investigation into Robert Hanssen, a respected FBI agent for some 25 years and allegedly the most damaging spy in America’s history. The focus of this film is the role of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a trainee FBI agent assigned to spy on the spy, in bringing Hanssen down and the relationship between the two men. While not seeking to explain explicitly why he turned traitor, possible reasons are given in how the character of Hanssen has been written.

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The action is set around February 2001, as Hanssen approaches retirement. As portrayed by Chris Cooper, Hanssen is a harsh and imposing character, full of contradictions: he’s a deeply religious family man (a member of Opus Dei), yet he also contributes to internet sex chat rooms and sends secretly obtained tapes of him having sex with his wife to someone in Germany. When I read up on Hanssen, I learnt that his online sessions describing sex with his wife were in sufficient detail for people who knew them to work out who was posting. His aim appears always to throw those around him so they never really know the real him or how he will react. Hanssen was computer savvy and had been employed in running deep cover operations in Russia for many years, as well as heading up an operation to catch a mole within the FBI back home. You’ve guessed it: the operation was looking for him. He was lucky in that another spy, Aldrich Ames, working for the CIA, was caught first and Hanssen was able to divert suspicion onto him. In the film, he’s suspicious of everyone around him, constantly demanding: ‘how do I know I can trust you?’ He shows a degree of pride and concern in maintaining his seniority, believing that a successful career in the FBI comes down to ‘playing the game’. He clearly feels resentment at being (as he perceives it) underappreciated by his bosses in all his time with the FBI.

Eric O’Neill has to find a way to communicate with his new boss, in order to get close to him. All he’s told by his handler, Kate Burroughs, played by the ever watchable Laura Linney, is that Hanssen is a sexual deviant with a string of complaints against him and they need more proof. O’Neill’s Roman Catholic background is the hook and gradually Hanssen shows what could be taken for a fatherly/mentoring interest in Eric, in particular in getting him to encourage his East German wife, Juliana (who is a non-believer from Protestant stock) to come ‘into the fold’. Hanssen’s religious certitude is terrifying, and he uses it as a means of both controlling and verifying the honesty of his assistant.

The unfolding of events grips, there is tension, yet without recourse to exciting chases or high drama. The look is cold, clinical and drab and that look extends to the actors: these are normal people in an abnormal and destructive job, one which they all question because they can see it sucking their lives dry. There are no high fives at the end, the satisfaction at a job well done is realistically muted and anticlimactic. Breach is definitely worth a look. It’s well written and calmly directed, but it’s not going to please everyone – Matt Damon and Daniel Craig need have no fears. It did, however, make me go away and do some research of my own.

Reviewed on: 23 Aug 2007
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A young, ambitious FBI agent is ordered to spy on his boss, who the organisation believe has been betraying his country for 20 years.
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Read more Breach reviews:

Jeff Robson ****
Darren Amner ***1/2

Director: Billy Ray

Writer: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray

Starring: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney, Dennis Haysbert, Caroline Dhavernas, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Cole, Bruce Davison

Year: 2007

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


EIFF 2007

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