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Awesome: 9.3%
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4 reviews, 19 user ratings

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by Todd LaPlace

"Chris Cooper as a devout sexual deviant and Russian spy? Sounds good to me!"
4 stars

The biggest U.S. news story in 2001 was obviously not the capture of FBI agent/Russian spy Robert Hanssen, but for the first half of the year, it seemed like it was destined to be. On Feb. 18, 2001, Hanssen was finally arrested after more than 20 years of spying for the enemy, which earned him the designation of the most damaging spy in American history. It’s a story that was tailor-made for cinematic adaptation. And even though we already know how the story ends, “Breach,” the fictionalized account of Hanssen and one of the men who brought him down, is a tight thriller that never lets something as stupid as an inevitable end stop it from telling a damn good story.

“Robert Philip Hanssen is a traitor. For all the words that have been written about him, for all the psychological analyses, the speculation about his motivation, and the assessments of his character, this is, at the end of the day, all that really warrants being said about Hanssen. He is a traitor and that singular truth is his legacy.”

At least, that’s what the U.S. attorney’s office wrote when it recommended that the disgraced FBI agent/spy for the Russians be sentenced to life in a supermax prison. And while the statement is true (especially from a governmental standpoint), something that overly simplistic doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie. But that’s exactly what director Billy Ray has made with “Breach.” Unlike so many other spy movies which either use slick slight of hand and gadgetry to entertain audiences (like “Casino Royale”) or an accurate but bland statement of facts to inform them (did anyone else think watching “The Good Shepard” was like reading a textbook?), “Breach” doesn’t doesn’t go for any of the standard tricks, opting instead to occupy that dangerous middle ground. If it’s too strait-laced, it’ll miss the teen audience, but if it’s too hyperbolic, it’s going to lose the history buffs.

“Breach” is neither, though, finding that nice balance between the two. Even though it seems paradoxical, the film’s inherent boundaries and limitations have seem to set it free. Much like Ray’s previous film “Shattered Glass,” the story of disgraced New Republic journalist Stephen Glass, the climax of the film is a foregone conclusion, and Ray acknowledges that by opening “Breach” with former Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing Hanssen’s capture. The film is now no longer about the ending, but about the journey. And like “Glass” (which is as much about New Republic editor Chuck Lane as Glass himself), “Breach” isn’t really about Hanssen; it’s about Eric O’Neill, the man who brought him down.

More comfortable tracking villains in back alleys as a surveillance expert, 27-year-old Eric (Ryan Philippe) is not pleased when he is pulled from the field to spy on Robert (Chris Cooper), a 25-year veteran of the FBI and supposed sexual deviant. It seems that Robert gets his kicks sending homemade porn of him and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) to a friend, and also writing about his sexual escapades online, both of which could embarrass the bureau. Previously on the fast track to becoming a full agent until his seemingly downward reassignment, Eric is also stressed by a superior (the always magnificent Laura Linney) that demands detailed notes on every little detail of Robert’s life, which includes a strong relationship with Opus Dei, a cult-like sect of the Catholic church made (in)famous by Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

Despite being too serious for his own good (one author has said that his primary identity was as “a square”), the pair actually forms an uneasy bond. Sometime in between Robert threatening him for being in his office and telling him that his East German wife (played by Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas) needs to convert to Catholicism, Eric actually begins to respect Robert. But besides being a little intense and sexually unusual, Robert is finally exposed to Eric as potentially the most dangerous spy in U.S. history. His monetary damage rates in the billions and he’s at least partially responsible for the deaths of at least 50 people. And nothing makes work more fun that having a devout deviant boss that’s spying for the enemy.

The movie’s biggest problem, though, is that it never really delves into any of Robert’s quirks. In interviews with anyone who knew the real Robert, he’s commonly referred to simply as Bob, but that’s a level of casual understanding that the film never acknowledges. Only his wife would be able to call him that, but she’s nothing more than a minor character. There is a quick mention of the lack of explanation given (as Robert speculates as to the motivation of another U.S. spy), but it’s hardly satisfactory. The most likely explanation, however, is that government imposed a gag order on Hanssen and the case is still confidential, so any motivation the film could offer would also strictly be speculation. That’s also perhaps why the film isn’t really about Hanssen. Even though the FBI has said that O’Neill played only a minor role in Hanssen’s capture, he’s the lead strictly because he’s (somewhat) allowed to talk about it.

Even though I’m personally most pleased to see Dhavernas again (can we have a moment of silence for the short-lived but brilliant “Wonderfalls”?), it’s the two leads that carry the film. Cooper, who still doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves, once again proves that he can play the steely, somewhat scary authority figure with more intensity than the more popular but less talented Christopher Walken. But perhaps the true measure of his talent is that despite all of the reasons to hate Robert, it’s easy to see why Eric was so taken with him. Whether he’s disapproving of women in pant suits, running Eric into boxes and copiers as they walk through the hall, giving Eric’s wife sidelong stares in a traditional Latin church service or simply lusting over Catherine Zeta-Jones (none of which do much to endear him to us), he’s still a powerful figure that has clearly earned him a reputation as one of the best of the best (you know, at least up until that whole spy thing).

It’s Philippe, though, that deserves most of the credit, simply for keeping up. As the George Burns to Cooper’s showier Gracie Allen, Philippe’s tasked to simply keep the story taut and constantly moving forward. The same has been true for his entire career, which might be why he’s still seen as that guy from “Cruel Intentions” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” as opposed to the talented ensemble man from the likes of “Gosford Park,” “Playing by Heart,” “Crash” and most recently, “Flags of Our Fathers.” He never gets to be the overtly racist cop or the egotistical flag-raiser or the man who runs his subordinates into office furniture. He’s the man who makes them look good, and in the case of “Breach,” he’s certainly proved that he’s very good at his job.

Every time I watch “The Laramie Project,” I’m struck by how strange it is that the two guys who killed Matthew Shepard are actually still sitting in a Wyoming prison somewhere. It’s the same thought I had watching “Breach.” Robert Hanssen is still sitting in some Colorado prison. I wonder if they’ll let him watch the movie.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15591&reviewer=401
originally posted: 02/17/07 18:23:26
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User Comments

12/28/17 morris campbell tense true life film good acting 4 stars
9/30/08 Annie G Tense and fascinating story, although I’m not sure how dramatized it was vs. truth. 3 stars
6/20/08 John M It was riveting, how could someone be a spy against their own government 4 stars
5/04/08 mr.mike Good suspense , with Cooper the best actor working today. Phillipe holds his own. 4 stars
8/05/07 Monday Morning Smart & intriguing, and I thought Ryan Phillippe's acting was fine, so lay off the dude. 4 stars
7/01/07 Helen Bradley Great story acting faced paced,Cooper's best film suspense 5 stars
6/20/07 caiphn I must have missed something. Incredibly boring. Phillippe friggin sucks, too. 2 stars
6/13/07 action movie fan interesting story but dull and pedestrain handling of it 2 stars
6/08/07 finc Good, Phillipe's acting originally questionable but brianorndoff hit it on the head 4 stars
6/03/07 chienne Loved Cooper in Lonesome Dove, brilliant here, you yanks should be worried about the FBI 5 stars
4/05/07 William Goss Interesting enough, but deliberate pace almost sabotages it. Cooper steals his own show. 4 stars
3/12/07 Ole Man Bourbon Cooper great, movie good, Philippe pitiful 4 stars
2/27/07 Van Allen Shane Jr. FUCKIN SUCKED 1 stars
2/27/07 Bonnie Baker Everything going for it...very,very good drama 5 stars
2/26/07 MARK . M LOVED IT. 5 stars
2/23/07 dmitry Chris Cooper is great, unfortunately the rest is pretty poor, especially Philippe 2 stars
2/18/07 R.W.Welch Cooper aces his role in neatly done true spy story. 4 stars
2/17/07 Bert Kaplan good movie; intense, suspenseful, great acting 4 stars
2/16/07 Bobbi not outstanding, but interesting 4 stars
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  16-Feb-2007 (PG-13)
  DVD: 12-Jun-2007

  31-Aug-2007 (12A)

  17-May-2007 (M)

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