In a moment of supreme and unintentional irony, Robert Hanssen, the quarry in BREACH, tells his assistant, Eric O’Neill, who doesn’t know yet what his real assignment concerning Hanssen is, that he was never interested in making headlines, only history. Of course, they will shortly be making both, but neither of them is aware of that yet. And that is the gist of what makes BREACH such an effective psychological thriller. At any given moment, there is at least one person who is unaware of what is really going on, of who is playing whom, and of what motives may be in play. It’s an atmosphere as complex and as contradictory as Hanssen himself.
At the start of the film based on the scandal that rocked the national security agencies in 2001, O’Neill, (Ryan Phillippe), is negotiating his way through the ranks of the FBI, trying to make agent in their splashy counter-terrorism unit. His attempts to get noticed, including writing a proposal to reorganize the Bureau’s database, are met with an infuriating indifference. It gets worse. On a Sunday he’s called into the office, pulled off CT and assigned to watch Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a Soviet analyst on the cusp of retirement and, according to Agent Burroughs (Laura Linney), a sexual deviant in need of monitoring lest the Bureau be embarrassed by his antics.
Assigned to a desk job with the title of clerk, his initial encounters with Hanssen are less than promising. Taciturn bordering on openly hostile, prickly, paranoid, and eyeing the world with baleful, resentful eyes that take the measure of the world and its people and finds them woefully wanting, Hanssen acknowledges O’Neill’s existence only to berate and belittle him. Oddly enough, though, he eventually takes a shine of sorts to O’Neill, one moment threatening bodily harm for violating his office, the next asking him if he prays the rosary every day. While the Bureau thought it would be O’Neill’s computer skills that would engage Hanssen, it’s his Catholicism, casual though it might be, that sparks an interest. He shows up unannounced at O’Neill’s home to take him to morning mass. He extends an invitation that is nothing less than an order for O’Neill and his protestant, East German wife to come to Sunday mass and the family dinner that follows. It’s only when O’Neill begins to see Hanssen as someone who has been misunderstood and possibly sympathetic, that Burroughs fills him in on the rest of the operation. Hanssen has been selling state secrets to the Russians for 20 years, and the case they need to make means catching him in the act of making a drop to the Russians.
There is no surprise ending here. The outcome is a given before the film begins. The very real tension comes of seeing O’Neill, the neophyte, and his superiors trying to outwit an agent whom they all acknowledge to be their intellectual superior. Director Billy Ray and company wisely don’t try to tart up the film with chase sequences and explosions. In fact, the most nail-biting sequence is of Hanssen and O’Neil stuck in traffic, the latter trying to manipulate the former into staying in the car without giving away that his leaving will blow the operation. The action of these two men playing off each other, everything they say working on more than one level and those levels changing with every exchange, sometimes with every line of conversation is where the film is at its best and most engrossing. The subplot of O’Neill’s struggles with keeping the true nature of his job from his wife and the rift that causes is less successful.
The battle of wits and of wills is more than sufficient, particularly when played by Cooper giving an intense and suitably twisted performance as a man who values loyalty and betrays his county, values family, but secretly tapes himself and his wife having sex, then shares the videos, sees conspiracies everywhere, but fails to suspect his subordinate of anything more than klutziness and impiety. He oozes the menace of complete unpredictability even when he’s trying to be genial. He gets Hanssen’s complete lack of a moral center and all that it implies. Phillippe pales a bit in comparison, but his vanilla earnestness makes for a welcome counterpoint. Linney, as the third part of this espionage triangle is terrific, flinty and ferociously driven but playing with a deadly cold understatement that makes her almost as scary as Hansen.
BREACH plays out like a standard procedural, but it’s more. Detailing how Hanssen was brought down by the people he considered his inferiors, it considers the fragility of the security apparatus of any agency. Further, it considers the people tasked to keep us safe, and the toll a life of subterfuge takes on those who live their lives that way no matter what the motives. It’s smart, thought-provoking, and more than a little unsettling