Thursday, October 4, 2018

Neglected Gem: Breach (2007)

Ryan Phillippe and Chris Cooper in Breach (2007).

Like his previous film, the 2003 Shattered Glass, writer-director Billy Ray’s Breach is a true-life narrative that builds to the uncovering of a fraud. In Shattered Glass the fraud was Stephen Glass (played by Hayden Christensen), the wunderkind journalist for The New Republic, who, it turned out, had concocted most of his stories. In Breach it’s Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), a CIA operative whose 2001 arrest revealed him as the most egregious spy in American history. Both of these movies are extremely suspenseful, but not in conventional ways, because there’s no surprise about the identity of either of the two perpetrators. Once a Forbes writer (Steve Zahn) starts to unravel one of Glass’s articles, we know where the film is going, and the only revelation in Breach – which comes in the early middle of the movie – is that the reason the CIA sets the aspiring young agent, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Philippe), in Hanssen’s office and on his tail isn’t, as Eric is originally told, that his new boss is a pornographer but that he’s a traitor. What appears to draw Ray to both his subjects is astonishment that they could have been who they were and gotten away with what they did for so long. What creates the suspense in both pictures is the way they move from incredulousness to certainty: both ours and that of the other major male characters – Eric in Breach, Steve Glass’s editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) in Shattered Glass – who have the charge of bringing them down.

The two movies are structured differently, however. (Ray is only one of three writers on Breach; the others are Adam Mazer and William Rotkok.) In Shattered Glass, the revelation of Glass’s fabrications is contained within a frame story in which he visits the classroom of his high-school journalism teacher and answers her students’ questions – though it doesn’t stick to Glass’s point of view. Breach never makes us privy to more information about Hanssen than Eric knows. He’s an ambitious young man who’s written an in-house study that he hopes will fast-track him through the CIA ranks. But so far it hasn’t gained him much attention – or so he thinks. In fact, Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), who assigns him to play the role of Hanssen’s assistant while he keeps an eye on him – not an easy assignment given Hanssen’s own surveillance genius and his dogged, vigilant self-protectiveness – has chosen him for the job largely as a result of that study, a meticulous, serious-minded piece of work she’s confident will gain him points with the ornery, tough-to-please Hanssen. And she’s right. Hanssen sees himself in the junior agent and softens up. He also begins to insinuate himself into Eric’s personal life, inviting him and his German wife, Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas), for dinner with him and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) and dropping by to visit Eric at home unannounced. A devout Catholic, he takes it on himself to work on Juliana to bring her into the church after Eric, who was brought up in the faith, allows Hanssen to believe it’s a sore point in their marriage. Sharing that confidence with Hanssen is Eric’s way of bonding with him, but he doesn’t expect to have to deal with his boss at home as well as at the office, and at first he resents this presumptuousness. As time goes on, however, he grows to like and admire Hanssen, and to resent the agency’s determination to hang him out to dry on what he thinks are fatuous pornography charges. (Erupting at Burroughs, he invokes the name of Kenneth Starr.) When Kate reveals that the charges aren’t fatuous – that they involve tapes he’s made of his lovemaking with his wife, made without her knowledge – Eric is startled. When she tells him that Hanssen’s real offense is treason, he’s flabbergasted.

Much of what keeps the movie tense and intriguing is the way in which the challenge of outwitting Hansen and allaying his suspicions sharpens Eric’s own wits and forces him to improvise. Philippe is a highly competent actor but he doesn’t have a strong personality, and that shortcoming works for him here. It wouldn’t if Breach were a different kind of spy movie – a breezy entertainment – but it’s serious and demands a distinctly un-flamboyant performer in the role of the spy’s spy. Cooper has the showpiece role, and he does perhaps the best work of his career: he manages to suggest the kind of granite-hewn old-school charisma that critics are always mistakenly praising in Clint Eastwood’s acting, while leaving room for disturbing surprises, like the way Hanssen involves his wife in the sex tapes. Quinlan makes Bonnie Hansen so open-hearted that you gasp at the thought that any man married to her could use her so callously. (The excellent cast also includes Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert and Bruce Davison as Eric’s dad.) In the final analysis, Hanssen, like Steve Glass, is a mystery the movie refuses to solve. After the CIA has got him dead to rights, thanks largely to Eric’s ingenuity and hard work, the two men meet again, by chance, when Eric, emptying his office, rings for the elevator and it opens to reveal Hanssen, his eyes red-rimmed, surrounded by agents. “Pray for me,” he implores Eric, and for a moment we feel we’ve been shown a glimpse of one man’s long-hidden private hell.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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