Spy vs. Spy
Breach / John Williams
Film Reviews | February 16, 2007 | Comments ()
It’s always a funny thing to say that a movie based on a true story doesn’t feel convincing enough, but that’s the case with Breach, a spy story featuring one remarkable performance that never quite makes up for a frustratingly limited perspective.
The movie is based on the pursuit of Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), an FBI agent who, starting in 1985, sold secrets to the Soviet Union. Astonishingly, despite dozens of full-time agents assigned to discover the mole in their ranks, and then to catch him in the act once he was discovered, Hanssen continued to get away with it until February 2001, long after the “evil empire” was again going by plain old “Russia.”
We learn of the story’s outcome immediately, and if Breach is the only movie I ever see that begins with an archival video close-up of John Ashcroft, I’m OK with that. The former attorney general is seen describing Hanssen’s transgressions and announcing his arrest to the media. You would think this gambit of beginning with the end might destroy all ensuing intrigue, but strangely, it’s other decisions by the filmmakers that accomplish that.
Considering that the FBI got its man, and that it knew what he was doing for many years despite lacking the necessary proof to convict him, fairly extensive details of his life and crimes must be known. It’s not unreasonable, then, to expect to swoop back a decade or more from Ashcroft’s press conference for a whirlwind tour of Hanssen’s traitorous but brilliantly executed career. Instead, the screenplay only manages to stumble backward a few months, to a point when Hanssen, near retirement, was assigned to an imaginary department simply so that the agency could continue to monitor his activities.
Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) is pulling the investigation’s strings behind the scenes, and she provides her mark with an assistant, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a cocky upstart impatient with aspirations. O’Neill is told that he’s supposed to keep tabs on the aging, marginalized Hanssen for proof of alleged sexual deviancy, an assignment he considers less than plum. He isn’t any more enthused after his initial encounter with the boss, during which he extends his hand, saying, “My name’s Eric,” and Hanssen sneers back, “No, your name is ‘clerk.’” The devil wears Brooks Brothers.
Hanssen, a maniacally strict Catholic, eventually thaws toward Eric, even inviting his underling to a church service, followed by a playful, snowy afternoon with his extended family, loving grandkids and all. And Eric’s efforts to unearth buried perversions go unrewarded. When he tries to goad Hanssen into discussing a sexy newscaster who just left their elevator, Hanssen grumpily says, “I disapprove of women in pantsuits. The world doesn’t need any more Hillary Clintons.” When Eric then confronts Burroughs, claiming that she’s mistaken an essentially decent (if crotchety) suburban grandfather for a smut freak, she lets him in on the real nature of Hanssen’s worst crimes, adding, for good measure, that the kinky stuff happens to be true, too.
From there, O’Neill is in a bind, finally part of something grand — the biggest spy case in the agency’s history — but also reluctantly fond of the man he’s charged with ruining. Given that it can’t function as a traditional thriller after leading with its denouement, Breach instead aims to be a psychological study of two confident but brittle men, both of whom have father issues, as well as an example of how trust and betrayal are meted out in the presence of so much wounded testosterone. It almost succeeds.
Its first obstacle is Phillippe, whose performance is serviceable at times, especially since he reads younger and more vulnerable than his 32 years, but who can’t match Cooper’s naturalism (more on him below). More importantly, though, even without ultimate suspense, Breach lacks high-quality interstitial suspense, the cat-and-mouse games that make most spy stories a rush. Instead of watching Hanssen at the top of his game, we watch O’Neill try to stall him in a variety of situations (including a lame sequence during a traffic jam) so that the agents can do their snooping work undiscovered. This doesn’t just cheat viewers of good action, it also raises some big questions: Why does it take so long for the crafty Hanssen to be suspicious of this new office he’s in, with nothing to do? Why would a justifiably paranoid man accept an assistant passed down from on high, sight unseen? And what possible secrets could he still be dropping off for the Russians, given that his department is fictional and that everyone else in the FBI knows he’s tainted? And why does he so frequently suspect O’Neill’s true job without ever connecting the last two dots?
The movie elides such questions and focuses more on Hanssen’s pushy efforts to convert O’Neill and his young wife to his church, and on the damage O’Neill’s secrecy does to his marriage, leaving precious little room for the actual details of espionage. The real-life O’Neill, who consulted on the film, has admitted that he only came in for the tail end of the game, and we’re left with the unsatisfying sensation that we’re watching just the post-game interviews of a classic nailbiter.
What redeems Breach, despite the reservations above, is Cooper’s phenomenal performance. When the film ends, the requisite “where are they now” material pops up, letting us know that Hanssen is serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison, where he spends 23 hours of every day in solitary confinement. This is a person who not only disclosed sensitive secrets to our most powerful enemy, but named names for the KGB, leading directly to the deaths of several people. And despite all that, the mention of his punishment stirs pity (if not sympathy), because Cooper is that good. He plays Hanssen as the emotionally stingy, homophobic, treasonous, borderline psychopath-with-a-God-complex that he presumably was, with the reasons to like him fleeting and insubstantial at best; and yet, Cooper makes him flesh and blood in a way that is completely compelling. With his small, dark, watery eyes, pursed mouth, and loose skin, Cooper is probably easiest described with the faintly condescending tag of “character actor.” If only more movies had a great character at the center of them. Breach does. But in removing that character from the richest, most dramatic context of his life, that’s almost all it has.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.