Friday, February 16, 2007

Breach - Movie Review

Breach 2007

“I should tease you, but that just gets me into trouble.”Robert Hanssen

When FBI Agent Robert Hanssen was denounced as a traitor against the U.S. government and revealed as a Soviet spy who exchanged secrets freely for over two decades his case made national headlines. Six years later we have a major motion picture depicting his downfall. If you don’t count the television biopic starring our beloved William Hurt and Mary-Louise Parker. Moving on.

On the plus side, “Breach” features an award worthy performance by Oscar winner Chris Cooper that more than makes up for its pitfalls. Coupled with the directorial talents of Billy Ray who has already explored the dark side of betrayal in the very fine and underrated “Shattered Glass” concerning the full time pathological liar and part time journalist Stephen Glass. That film also featured an award worthy performance by Peter Sarsgaard. Go rent it now! Back to “Breach”. While we had hoped for the best with such a fine cast and crew, we ended up feeling more than a tad "teased" by the end results. Specifically by the uneven script and its lack of focus on this most interesting man.

Instead of focusing on Hanssen’s motivation and plight alone, “Breach” takes the form of a political thriller by casting humpy Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill, the young Investigative Specialist, aka a “Ghost” for the FBI’s special surveillance group who was placed as Hanssen’s assistant in order to gather incriminating evidence to help bring him down. Despite Mr. Phillippe’s brave attempt to flesh out this less interesting character, the film seems to lose its way by avoiding the more interesting protagonist. Or antagonist, as the case may be.

Chris Cooper has been delivering fine performances since the late eighties, and it is always a pleasure to watch this sterling performer sink his teeth into an interesting role. Here, portraying a man who hides behind layers of deceit and dubious morality, he is mesmerizing. Lips pursed in a pseudo scowl, eyes a twitter with doubt and underhanded intent – he dominates every scene he is in. Thankfully, the film rarely strays from this mystery man who plotted to bring down his seemingly beloved country for the price of ignoring his own self aggrandized ego.

If the film had attempted to recount his final days of freedom by guiding us along on his journey, we think we would have found the effect stunning. But like many filmmakers before him, Billy Ray is in desperate search of a hero for the audience to latch onto. We think it is a crucial mistake.

For while Ryan Phillippe has slowly developed into a very interesting young actor, more than capable of holding his own in a stark drama – witness his very fine turn last year in “Flags of Our Fathers”, he is not able to captivate the screen in the overpowering presence of Chris Cooper. Neither is the rest of the hard working cast. To wit:

Laura Linney, the two time Oscar nominee who has taken to carving out a niche for herself as the new Glenn Close –appears as Kate Burroughs, the head of the division bearing down on Hanssen. We did enjoy the glint in her eye as she terrorizes Ryan Phillippe into maintaining his goal, while harboring deep secrets of her own. Are all FBI agents lying, backstabbing twats? Harumph.

On a much smaller scale, four talented performers appear far too briefly to register as little more than character types. Oscar nominee Kathleen Quinlan, the onetime darling ingénue of the seventies brings a calm presence and mature beauty to the role of Hanssen’s wife. A woman who exudes motherly warmth and good Christian “morality” – when not allowing herself to be duped as well by her conniving hubby.

Gary Cole and Dennis Haysbert are barely distinguishable as two pert G-men who are fully immersed in the agency’s grand scheme to bring Hanssen to his knees. If it weren’t for the variation in their skin tones, we might never have kept them separate.

That talented Oscar nominee Bruce Davison drops by for a cameo as Ryan’s father, whose shoulder is readily available to cry on at the perfectly postcard moment.

And last and certainly least, young Caroline Dhavernas who was so wonderful on that criminally overlooked television series Wonderfalls is horribly miscast as the whiny, clinging, German émigré spouse to Ryan Phillippe. After enjoying her skilled method of lunacy on that cancelled charmer, we were shocked to find her struggling in a role that called for little more than a wink, a nod and an unnecessary confrontation scene that only serves to reinforce Ryan’s all consuming mission.

We were thankful to leave the less interesting supporting cast behind, in order to get back to the more fascinating aspects of this docudrama. Watching Chris Cooper wheedle around the FBI’s various mousetraps, and the rapidly growing confidence of his young charge / mole is the soul of this soulless movie.

Perhaps part of our trouble with “Breach” was its unlucky timing coming on the heels of the far superior political thriller concerning betrayal and honor from Germany, the Oscar nominated The Lives of Others”. That film was so successful in juggling the interpersonal, the political and the historical – that it left us breathless. “Breach” only left us wanting to find a better script for Chris Cooper.

Still, his moments are so powerful we find ourselves recommending the movie to our dear readers in order to experience such a great turn! We know, we know. We must be drinking more than usual. But watch how Cooper handles his body in this film. He has internalized his own fears of being discovered to the point that he has complete confidence in his ability to continue the charade. His façade never cracks, and yet his mannerisms seem to betray him. A devout Catholic who bears no fear of being branded “politically incorrect” by his co-workers – he bullies Ryan Phillippe’s character into divulging his own secrets and fears. Secrets that will come back to haunt Hanssen, as he mistakenly takes pride in the young man’s seeming acquiescence.

It does ultimately seem a wonder that this man, a devout member of Opus Dei, who is obsessed with watching videos of Catherine Zeta-Jones movies alone in his office . . . whew! . . . that alone should have been cause to imprison him. But we digress. It is almost comical how much time and energy the FBI invested in bringing down a man who had managed to fool them completely for two decades, only to entrust the entire proceedings on a rookie trainee whose mastery of a palm pilot would prove to be the smoking gun moment they had longed for.

The ending shot is not based on fact, which is a scene that might work dramatically but borders on the ridiculous. Cooper and Phillippe handle the scene well enough, but it rings of fiction and is ultimately unnecessary. The film’s coda reveals Hanssen’s fate, which is probably one of the most painful ever to be presented for treasonous acts. It seems that the real Hanssen is destined to live out his life alone in a maximum security prison where he is held in solitary confinement for twenty three hours of the day! Thankfully, “Breach” will only hold you captive for two hours, both of which are more than tolerable for the opportunity to bask in the talent of Chris Cooper. Bless you all!

Directed by Billy Ray
Written by Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Billy Ray
Story by Adam Mazer and William Rotko

Chris Cooper as Robert Hanssen
Ryan Phillippe as Eric O’Neill
Laura Linney as Kate Burroughs
Caroline Dhavernas as Juliana O’Neill
Gary Cole as Rich Garces
Dennis Haysbert as Dan Plesac
Kathleen Quinlan as Bonnie Hanssen
Bruce Davison as John O’Neill

Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto
Film Editing by Jeffrey Ford
Original Music by Mychael Danna
Costume Design by Luis Sequeira
Production Design by Wynn Thomas
Art Direction by Andrew M. Stearn
Set Decoration by Gordon Sim



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